Monday, May 09, 2011

Till It Drops

"A catcher and his body are like the outlaw and his horse. He's got to ride that nag till it drops."
-Johnny Bench


It's a brutal assignment. A big-league backstop is subject to being battered by foul tips, back-swings and barreling base runners. His glove hand is swollen throughout the season from being pounded by mid-90s fastballs on a nightly basis. And, worst of all, there's the relentless wear-and-tear on his lower body -- the result of crouching and standing up countless times per game for seven straight months.

Given these facts, it should come as no surprise that few players are able to catch regularly throughout an entire season while still producing with the bat. Last year, only two backstops in the major leagues accumulated enough at-bats to qualify for a batting title while posting an OPS north of .700.

Joe Mauer was one of them, of course. During his career, he's usually ranked as the best offensive catcher in the league, and he's also been one of the most durable. This is precisely what makes him so uniquely valuable.

I fully understand how closely Mauer's value is tied to being behind the plate, which is why I've always maintained that the Twins should keep him there until it's no longer reasonable to do so.

I believe we've reached that point.

The final red flag probably should have been Mauer's knee injury last year, which sapped him of his power and reduced him to a non-factor by the time the playoffs rolled around. Oddly, a decision was made two months into the offseason to operate on the knee (the same one that cost him most of his rookie campaign).

Mauer is no stranger to rehabbing from injuries and surgeries, but his return from this particular procedure has been conspicuously different. Two months after the operation, he showed up at spring training "a mess" and, despite multiple lubricant injections and hours spent each day trying to strengthen his legs, he could not work his way into playing shape.

I give the hometown star credit for trying to push through the dead legs and get on the field, eager to justify his enormous new contract, but in the end Mauer's determination probably only set him back. He played poorly over nine regular-season games before landing on the disabled list. Some have speculated he could be gone until the All-Star break or longer, and with the team completely unwilling to divulge any information about the specific nature of his ailment or set a firm timetable for his return, such speculation doesn't even seem particularly irresponsible.

It's true that Mauer provides notably less value while playing a position other than catcher, but he provides no value when he's not on the field. That's a problem that's getting worse, not better, and with the investment this organization has made in Mauer it's one that is becoming less tolerable.

He missed the first month of 2009, and played in even fewer games last year. With only nine games in the books this season and no return in sight, it appears as though he may play less this year than either of the past two.

Not acceptable for a $23 million player.

Throughout his career, Mauer has routinely worn down late in the season. His .439 slugging percentage in September ranks as his lowest outside of April. He's been a non-factor in the playoffs, with one extra-base hit in 39 career postseason plate appearances.

Also not acceptable for a $23 million player.

Will Carroll, a writer who specializes in covering sports injuries for, wrote the following about Mauer back in March, before he landed on the disabled list less than two weeks into the season:
Note to self: Give up on the idea that Mauer will be moved from behind the plate while he's in a Twins uniform. They think his value back there trumps the beating he takes and the chance that Mauer is the next catcher to get in a situation like Carlos Santana, or to end up with his knees ground down and his career over early. Sure, some catchers have remained healthy -- Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza come to mind, two players who couldn't be more different. Maybe Mauer can be another one of those, but his knee, leg and back problems don't make me optimistic about it. Mauer's a special talent and last season might have been more impressive than his MVP campaign, having played through a ton of nagging injuries from June on. He fought through them, knowing that without Justin Morneau, he was the Twins offense. His example helped the team around him, one of those intangible things that also factors in when the Twins do have the occasional thought about shifting him to DH.
Over the years, people other than Carroll have pointed to many different factors as justification for moving Mauer out from behind the plate:

His 6-foot-5 frame.

His need to sit out about a game per week even when healthy.

Diminished offensive production due to the rigors of catching.

The severe knee injury he suffered during his rookie campaign.

The mounting lower-body injuries and surgeries that have piled up since.

And now, mysterious leg weakness that has the Twins' most valuable asset on the shelf and out of sight indefinitely.

None of these issues in isolation represent compelling reasons to depress Mauer's peak value by changing his position. But, when you look at the big picture, and the amount of money the organization has invested in him over the next eight years, there's one inescapable conclusion:

Mauer has to be moved. And soon.

Johnny Bench, the Hall of Famer quoted at the beginning of this article, caught until he was 33, then switched to first and third base. He kept playing with reduced effectiveness for two more years before retiring at 35. Bench rode that nag as long as he could -- maybe for too long (he required hip replacement surgery at age 57).

With the investment they've made, the Twins can ill afford to keep sending Mauer down that path, especially when his body is screaming out that it's had enough.

By now, the dilemmas being mulled at 1 Twins Way should be where to move Mauer and how to replace him with someone competent behind the dish.


Alex said...

Is Mauer agile enough to start playing 2nd base? In that case, Nishi (crossing fingers) and Plouffe could rotate at short

Can Valencia play a middle infield spot? In that case, throw Mauer over to 3rd, then play around with Valencia, Plouffe, and Nishi at SS and 2B.

Is playing a corner outfield spot within the realm of possibility? That way, we'd have Span, Mauer, Cuddy, Young, Kubel, and Repko/Revere in the outfield. Cuddy might need to play some 1B and Kubel will usually be ah DH, so that could leave some room for Joe out there.

(Notice that I'm giving no weight on Casilla starting anywhere)

Bryz said...

I think his CS% could be another sign that maybe he should move out from behind the plate.

2004: 39% (7 CS/18 attempts)
2005: 43% (23/54)
2006: 38% (22/58)
2007: 53% (24/45)
2008: 36% (29/80)
2009: 26% (19/73)
2010: 26% (19/72)
2011: 20% (2/10)

For someone that gets praised on his arm all the time, it's certainly been trending downward since 2007. A good reason is simply that his legs aren't as strong as they need to be.

Anonymous said...

Agreed! Any other conclusion is simply delusional. With his throwing arm, RF seems like the best choice.

fieldsy34 said...

Good post... Where would you want to see him moved?

Anonymous said...

I always kind of thought he'd end up at 1rst when Morneau's contract expires.


Drew said...

So, Assuming outfield is where he is going. Who is the trade bait for a replacement catcher? and what catchers are available?

Maija said...

Although I entirely disagree with the substantive argument here, this is really good piece of writing. Bravo!

Ed Bast said...

While this is a good discussion topic I have the feeling it's all moot, because the Twins will refuse to move him. Also, viable MLB catchers are really difficult to find and develop. It could be 5+ years until the Twins have a MLB-caliber one in their system - and when you trade the one legit catcher in your system for a relief pitcher, well, Lady Luck probably isn't going to be kind to you. And nobody (except the Twins, of course) is going to trade a good young catcher.

As for the position switch, I think the club needs to monitor the Morneau situation for the next year or so, but there's a real possibility he's never going to be the same player again. He looks like a shell of his former self. 1B seems like the best fit for Mauer.

Again, though, the Twins are so stubborn that they'd rather watch Butera/Holm/Rivera set offensive baseball back 100 years than admit they overpaid for the next coming of John Olerud and botched yet another trade.

Matt said...

I think 1st or 3rd are good options. This is a very good athlete we're talking about here, one who got offered a free ride to play Division 1A football and was easily the best player on a basketball team that finished runner up in the state tourney in the '00-'01 season.
Trade Morneau, move Mauer to 1st (that is, if anyone will take him). And yes, trade Liriano, too, the recent no-no nonwithstanding.

I know these guys are "the core" but this core isn't looking good and it's time to break it up and get some young talent into the high minors; guys who can supplement veterans in place in the next couple of years to make a run. If you're playing Tolbert everyday, you're just not going to be a winning club.

Nick N. said...

Is playing a corner outfield spot within the realm of possibility?

Probably the most likely long-term destination, I'd think.

Although I entirely disagree with the substantive argument here, this is really good piece of writing.

Thanks Maija!

While this is a good discussion topic I have the feeling it's all moot, because the Twins will refuse to move him.

Seems to me like they've been opening up to the possibility more and more publicly.

I think 1st or 3rd are good options.

Third base is probably where I'd most like to see him end up, but -- as with most spots -- it will take at least a full offseason of preparation for him to get comfortable at the position. If he were to be moved this year, first and DH might be the only choices.

Sadly, it's looking like help might be needed at first.

Dan said...

I have finally come around to the opinion that Mauer should be moved.

A corner OF spot or 3rd base seems like the best fit. But unless we make a move for a catcher mid-season we probably need him to be primarily a catcher for the remainder of 2011. But perhaps he could adopt one of them as a secondary position this year to keep him in more games.

I think it's way too early to write Morneau off. After missing 8 months of baseball, did we really expect him to come right back where he left off? Watching his at-bats, he seems to be opening up to everything, whether he's gun shy and doesn't want to get too close to the plate or if he's trying to pull everything, I don't know. Either way, it can be fixed.

A few weeks ago, the Twins actually put a public opinion poll on their website as to whether or not Mauer should be moved. To do this, they have to at least be considering it.

Finally, the number 23 million has nothing to do with this decision, but 8 does. The decision needs to be based on how to get the most production over the next 7.75 years. I'm already sick of hearing "$23 million."

Matt Groff said...

I've been a big proponent of moving Mauer, I was so angry when they traded Wilson Ramos because I thought that'd give the twins a chance to move Mauer and have a C who could actually do some damage at the plate and not just behind it.

Before the Ramos Trade, I envisioned Mauer at 3B, this was before Valencia was penciled in there. I still think Mauer could play 3B. Valencia could move to 2B, allowing Nishi and Ploufe to rotate at SS.

I think Cuddyer has to go, sure he's been valuable in the field playing all over, but he's just not cutting it at the plate.

Now is the time to move Kubel, his bat is hot, he is the best hitter on the team right now. Move him and get a Catcher, find a 9th molina brother that can catch more than 4 games a week and hits .250 or higher.

Trade Morneau, he's young, you can't just forget how to play ball, he will be fine, I'd rather work around Mauer's prime now than anyone elses.

This is a team that with a piece here or there can be really good or really bad. Unfortunately without Mauer it's really bad. Sure he calls a great game, but his bat could be so much more valuable if he was playing every day.

I envision a lineup like this in the future.

Span CF
Nish/ploufe SS
Mauer 1B
Free Agent signed with Morneau $
Young LF/DH
Free Agent Signed with Cuddy $
Valencia 3B
Random Molina C
Revere RF

Andrew said...

Just speculating here:

Nick, what you do think it would take to get Montero from the Yankees? It would be great to have a rotating C with Mauer/Montero. With Morneau you could have him switch between DH and first

Nick N. said...

Nick, what you do think it would take to get Montero from the Yankees?

Probably more than the Twins have to offer.

USAFChief said...

I've been arguing for 2 years now Mauer should've been moved. Had the Twins moved him a couple years ago, many of these problems wouldn't need to be solved now.

If they are going to move him this year, I think he could make the transition to a corner OF spot pretty easily. Easiest positions on the field to play.

I don't see how you can move him to 1st base while Morneau's under contract, and that transition would probably need to be done in the offseason anyway.

My preference would be 3b, but that would surely take at least an offseason to do. I think he could handle 3b, and you don't worry about Valencia to move a player like Mauer. If Valencia can move to 2b, great, if not, oh well. He could be part of a package for a catcher.

Zachary said...

What the Twins need to do is not trade their only decent backup C for an average RP who won't be on the team next year. If we were getting ANY production, let alone Ramos's numbers right now, I don't believe this would have nearly the attention it does.

Nick N. said...

If we were getting ANY production, let alone Ramos's numbers right now, I don't believe this would have nearly the attention it does.

You make a fair point; however, if having Mauer at catcher gives the Twins enough false comfort to carry a non-MLB caliber backup at the position, maybe that's another mark against having him there.

mgraves said...

Delmon Young is younger than is Jason Kubel, but I don't understand why so many people here would rather have Young than Kubel. Last year was Young's first positive WAR season since he played for the Rays. In roughly the same number of plate appearances (over the course of their careers: 2572 and 2527), Kubel has produced more than twice the WAR as Young, and has had more years of positive WAR. Kubel has produced three times the RAR over the course of their careers.

Young's blow up year had a significantly lower peak than did Kubel's (3 vs 2 WAR; 29.7 vs 19.6 RAR; .907 vs .826 OPS). Kubel's numbers, with the exception of 2010 trend upward. Young's numbers, with the exception of 2010, trend downward. Over the next four years, there is no question Kubel will be a more valuable player. And if Bremer and Blyleven are anything to go by, Kubel is making strides in his defensive game.

Young is a first round bust and the Garza/Bartlett for Young/Harris trade was the first indication that Bill Smith is a thoroughly inept General Manager.

Larry said...

Nick, the obvious thing is this: whatever you want to do with Mauer long-term, there's no reason for him to catch in the short-term. The Twins still have a shot to win a very weak A.L. Central, but the odds of making the post-season are gradually getting longer for you guys, and at least until you guys are in shouting distance of first place, there's no reason to further risk Mauer's knees and back by having him catch.

As for Montero ... Jason and I might be willing to discuss him with you, but because we're friends you and I, I have to say that he may not be the guy you're looking for, because we're still not convinced he can catch on a big league level. And remember, after having watched Posada all these years, we haven't exactly been spoiled defensively behind the plate.


Anonymous said...

The Twins aren't going to move Mauer anytime soon and it's laughable to do so anyway. For 23 million a year playing the amount of time Mauer did in 2009 and 2010 at catcher is totally acceptable. He obviously didn't start his contract until this year and he hasn't played much. It's early though. It's all fun and amusing to talk about him playing 1B, 3B, outfield etc. However, there is no evidence he could play any of these positions well or even average. That alone decreases his value significantly. Mauer playing 120 games at catcher is totally reasonable if he plays to the level of his past ability. To say Mauer is always injured isn't valid. He has played more games then any other catcher since 2005 and played it beyond satisfactory. You don't move Mauer off catcher because he has been hurt the last month. Even if he doesn't come back this year (he will be back in early June) he still needs to play catcher. Even if he misses another month next year he needs to play catcher. His contact has no value playing right field below average for the Twins. He has no business playing 3rd with a UZR of -25. When you speak about him playing poorly in the playoffs I don't see that either. It's a very small sample size against very good pitching. His 2009 playoffs was solid against the Yanks.

Ed Bast said...

Last time Mauer spoke to the media (April 27; seems about right that the face of the franchise would keep everyone in the dark about his injury), he said this:

"I just think I can help the team a lot more behind the plate. That's what I signed here to do is catch. I think we're a better ballclub when I'm behind the plate."

You have to give it to Mauer, this truly is a Minnesota passive-aggressive brand of high-paid athlete selfishness, and it takes some digging to find it, but there are a lot of things wrong with this quote. First of all, you can help this team a lot more by DHing rather than hiding somewhere in Florida. Joe, have you watched any of the team's games lately? You swinging one-handed is an improvement over half this lineup.

Second, oh really, you signed here to catch? Hmm. That's all you're interested in doing eh? Funny, I'd think a $23 mil/yr "leader" would be more interested in winning, e.g., I signed here to win a World Series. But oh well, as long as you have an organization that enables this behavior, I'd probably be an entitled prima donna too.

Anonymous said...

Mauer Prima Donna? Oh boy... I think Mauer is right. His value is behind catcher. Let him get healthly so he can play it well like oh I dunno how he has been doing it the last 5 years more and better than any other catcher probably ever. But no, lets put him at 3rr or 1st. Positions last I checked that are filled... He must be able to play a great 3rd base. Heck, lets get him as QB as the Vikings. He was good in high school he must still be good.

Ed Bast said...

"His value is behind catcher."

He is MOST valuable at catcher, yes. Nobody is suggesting otherwise. But you seem to be suggesting he has no value anywhere else on the field. Is that what you are suggesting?

I can also guarantee you he will have zero value to this club if/when he blows out his knee.

Move 7 to 7 said...

Sign the petition to move Mauer! Move 7 to 7:

USAFChief said...

"Mauer playing 120 games at catcher is totally reasonable if he plays to the level of his past ability."

Mauer has caught as many as 120 games in a season ONCE in his career.


noam chomsky said...

hands pounded by mid 90's fastballs? doh-ka.

Anonymous said...

Mauer has STARTED at catcher in over 120 games just once. He has played at catcher in a game more than 120 games in two seasons. AND in 4 seasons he has been VERY close to a 120 games. My point is 120 games is great it's more than any other catcher in the majors in the last 5 years. Add another 15-20 at DH and you have perfection.
2005 Games Played - 116
2005 Games Started - 110
2006 - 120, 119
2007 - 91, 88
2008 - 139, 135
2009 - 109, 105
2010 - 112, 107
Mauer has little value at 23 million a year in RF. He has little value at 3rd or 1st IF HE CAN'T PLAY 3rd or 1st! It's unreasonable.
Mauer's value is lowered significantly at any IF positon and at the DH. He has limited power but while at catcher his OBP and Hitting ability makes him a Hall of Fame player. At DH he would be Edgar Martinez but getting paid about 13 million too much.


USAFChief said...

"Mauer has little value at 23 million a year in RF. He has little value at 3rd or 1st IF HE CAN'T PLAY 3rd or 1st!"

Ah, the Fangraphs argument: "A base hit is worth more if it comes from a catcher than if it comes from a right fielder!"

There is almost no reason to think Mauer couldn't play a corner OF spot defensively. There's little reason to think he couldn't play 1st base, and given his athleticism it's reasonable to think he could learn to play 3b.

All of those are more valuable if he's on the field than compared to catcher if he's not on the field, and as your games played chart clearly shows, even if Mauer COULD somehow average 120 games at catcher, which is going to be nearly impossible, that makes him not a full time player, but a 3/4 time player.

You seem to think playing 3b in 155 games is somehow less valuable than playing catcher for 110 games. That's idiotic, and THAT's the waste of money.

The way to get $184M worth out of Mauer is to keep him on the field and in the lineup. It's also entirely reasonable to think Mauer's offensive production might be a bit higher if he wasn't a catcher.

Ed Bast said...

Last night we got the classic Twins excuse machine running at full power: Twins pitcher starts game, has terrible game, coaches excuse terrible game after the fact by saying he was sick or hurt.

Does it really need to be said again? If he's healthy enough to start, he's healthy enough to finish. Don't make excuses. But, of course, yesterday (May 10) we had to hear that both the trainer and Mauer didn't think he was ready to start the season (April 1).

My forehead is numb from pounding my head against a wall so many times in this young season.

Anonymous said...

Your idea that Mauer can play 3B is idiotic. It's idiotic to assume that Mauer CAN play 155 games at 3B as well, either by staying healthly or actually being able to field the position while NEVER playing the position before. If he could play 3B AND if he could play 155 games there then his value is great at 3B. What I'm saying is that its not even feasible. As for 120 games at catcher he has basically done that ever year. Oh Ok, 110 games. You can then assume he can keep doing it for some time. That's not all I am asking him to play. 110-120 at catcher and 15-20 at DH. That makes him a full time player. Corner OF spots and full-time DH are a waste of Mauer's time. Just because he is hurt now doesn't mean he is injury prone now. It's just a good writers story. It came up in 2009 as well. But everybody that really believes Mauer should play RF is nuts. Mauer is the star of the team so writers want to get people riled up by saying he is soft, should move position or play at 50%. It's garbage. Yes if Mauer can play SS or 3B by all means lets put him out there, right after we use Mauer at QB to beat the Packers...


Polish Sausage said...

"Just because he is hurt now doesn't mean he is injury prone now."

Up until this point I thought you were serious, now I know you're joking. Good one, though.

sick of pathetic performances guy said...

okay its time to shake things up. first and foremost, trade cuddy for anything, a dozen jockstraps and a roll of toilet paper if that's what it takes. let him be versitilely terrible for some other team. wake this team up for gods sake this pathetic act has gone on too long. quit being nice and change things. it aint working. use his 12 million buck salary to find mlb caliber players at ss, catcher, middle relief, outfield, jesus the list goes on. do something, this is torture. fans need to boycott, whose with me?

mgraves said...

sick of pathetic performances guy--who's going to take Cuddyer's contract? Pavano's? Blackburn's? Nathan's? Capps' (may as well, this team is not going to be competing any time soon)? These are T-wolves style bad contracts.

That is not the only area that Bill Smith has proven himself inept. Look at the minor league system: Rochester lost 100 games in a 140 game season last year. New Britain lost, what, 90? You have to go to low A or rookie ball to find competitive teams in this organization. Most of the organization is made up of people failing one level above their competence.

The system has some promising talents, but there is zero mid-level talent able to some day produce as role players. The Twins have the same scouting infrastructure, which would seem to indicate that Bill Smith has too much power in the draft. Additionally, MacPhail and Ryan were able to replenish the minor through effective trades of aging veterans (while holding on to players such as Radke, who could continue to contribute--Radke average about 4 WAR/year, including a 5+ in 2004). Smith, on the other hand, trades prospects for other teams' cast-offs (rule number one: never trade with the Rays because you cannot even hope to break even).

It is sickening to see what Smith has done to this franchise--slow-walking it to annual failure (only now, ridiculously over-paid).

Fire Smith. Spend the winter re-grouping for a run in 2013.

Right now, the only thing I'd pay to watch in Target Field is Smith's firing. I'll watch the Redhawks play, instead. At least the product is watchable.

USAFChief said...

"Your idea that Mauer can play 3B is idiotic. It's idiotic to assume that Mauer CAN play 155 games at 3B as well, either by staying healthly or actually being able to field the position while NEVER playing the position before."

1. I don't KNOW if Mauer can play 3b, but it's reasonable to assume he can, with an offseason to prepare. He's a good athlete, has a strong arm, and is still agile enough. Fielding ground balls is a skill not every player has, but he handles balls in the dirt at catcher well enough to think he could learn the position, as many other catchers have done.

2. To claim, on one hand, that Mauer will be healthy enough to average 120 games at catcher, while simultaneously claiming he wouldn't be healthy enough to average 155 games at 3b, reveals a serious lack of baseball knowledge on your part. I'm guessing you have no experience with the actual playing of the game. 120 games at catcher would take pretty much the same level of health as 155 games at 3b.

Anonymous said...

put him at 3, leave morneau at 1, and see if valencia can handle SS or 2nd, then move nishi to the other.