Months of speculation, assumptions, rumors, false reports and anxiety finally came to an end Sunday afternoon when the Twins immediately overshadowed news of Joe Nathan officially opting for Tommy John surgery by signing Joe Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract extension that includes full no-trade protection and will keep the reigning AL MVP in Minnesota through his age-35 season in 2018.
Target Field was built to give Minnesotans the pleasure of outdoor baseball after decades in the Metrodome, but also to increase revenue enough to support a competitive payroll capable of retaining star players nearing free agency. As a 27-year-old, homegrown, former No. 1 overall pick coming off an MVP season, Mauer fits that bill as well as any player ever will, which is why the decision was a no-brainer for the Twins, despite the incredible amount of risk involved.
A list of the largest contracts in MLB history shows that long-term deals exceeding $100 million tend to work out well for the team far less than most people seem to think. For every Albert Pujols or Manny Ramirez deal that proved favorable for the team, there are several massive deals that proved unfavorable to varying degrees: Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano, Ken Griffey Jr., Kevin Brown, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi, Carlos Beltran.
Some of those were full-blown busts, some were a mixed bag where ultimately the player was paid significantly more than he was worth, and some simply saw the team overpay for a good player, as the “bad” pretty clearly outnumber the “good,” even though in nearly every case the team and its fans were thrilled at the time of the signing. In other words, if given a chance to go back in time, more often than not teams would opt against handing out a $100 million deal.
None of which means the Twins will regret this deal, just that committing that much up-front money over that many guaranteed years to even the very best players leaves all kinds of room for things to go wrong. Mauer is both younger and better than most of the guys to crack $100 million, but while those are key distinctions, they’re also offset somewhat by the fact that he plays a notoriously taxing position and has already experienced several major injuries.
All of which is mostly just a long way of saying $184 million is an awful lot of money, no matter the circumstances. However, in this case, the player isn’t merely great — he’s truly elite, right in the middle of his prime, and clearly on an inner-circle Hall of Fame path. In five full seasons as a big leaguer, Mauer has won one MVP and had a compelling case for two others while never playing at less than an All-Star level.
According to Fan Graphs’ player valuation system, he was worth an average of $22 million over that five-year span, including $26 million in 2008 and $37 million last season, so based on his established track record of performance, $23 million per year seems about right. That figure is also in line with the most recent $100 million-plus contract given to a hitter, which is the nearly identical eight-year, $180 million deal Mark Teixeira signed with the Yankees last offseason.
Teixeira signed that contract as a 29-year-old first baseman and .290/.378/.541 career hitter with an adjusted OPS+ of 134. Mauer is a 27-year-old catcher and .327/.408/.483 career hitter with an adjusted OPS+ of 136. Mauer is two years younger with superior defensive value and every bit as strong offensively even before factoring in the huge hitting disparity between first basemen and catchers (showing his value even if a position change is needed down the line).
Now, obviously it’s a lot easier and less risky for the Yankees to throw around $180 million, and there’s actually a legitimate argument to be made for not committing that much money to any player, but in terms of his established level of performance and the going rate for elite hitters, Mauer’s deal is right around fair market value and perhaps even represents a bit of a discount if there can be such a thing at $184 million.
Beyond that, for any talk of Mauer’s contract being so big that it could hinder the Twins’ ability to maintain a quality roster around him, it’s important to note that their payroll has been in the $70 million range in recent years. Moving to Target Field has allowed them to push the payroll to around $100 million for 2010 and presumably the near future, in which case the $23 million devoted to Mauer will still leave more money to spend than they had in any previous season.
History says there’s a high likelihood of the Twins living to regret Mauer’s deal, but that would be true at $124 million or $184 million, because once you get into that stratosphere, remaining healthy and similarly productive is a must for the pact to work out. Whether that’s a sound risk is certainly debatable, particularly for the Twins, but if anyone is worth their taking on the risks associated with a $184 million contract, Mauer would seem to be the guy on and off the field.
If nothing else, the folks in Cooperstown can now start engraving a Twins hat on his plaque.