Nate On Sports: Megabucks for Mauer – A Must for Minnesota

There go those damn Yankees again, spending $184 million on a baseball player.
Oh, what’s that? It wasn’t the Yankees? Well, it had to have been the Red Sox then, right? No? Wait, you’re telling me it was the Minnesota Twins? The MINNESOTA TWINS?!?!
Yes, the Minnesota Twins. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the economics of baseball, this is an unprecedented move for the Twins. If the numbers I have researched are correct, the Twins have committed to pay Joe Mauer nearly as much as they paid their entire big league roster in 2007, 2008, and 2009 combined. If, for a second, you assume that Mauer’s contract starts this year (when in actuality it starts next year), you would find that about one-third of the team’s 2010 payroll would be dedicated to Mr. Mauer.
And you know what? I think it’s a great move for the Twins. Now, the completely rational, baseball-minded individual in me doesn’t fully agree, but in this case, he gets overruled.
Nevertheless, let’s look at the facts for a moment. Joe Mauer is a catcher – by far the most physically demanding position in the game. Catchers break down much sooner than other position players, and even though Minnesota will surely try to counter this by utilizing Mauer as a designated hitter and, in all likelihood in the future, first base, the physical demands will eventually take a toll on him. Essentially, it looks like Minnesota will be paying a first baseman/DH $23 million/year for the final three years of that deal, when he will be 33 years old. Now don’t get me wrong, he’ll still be a great player – but I have a hard time believing he’ll ever develop the power to make himself a truly elite first baseman. To be short, he’s being paid all this based on his performance as a catcher, first and foremost.
Now let’s just forget that he’s a catcher for a moment. Eight year deals are a risky move for any player. I’m a Cubs fan, I know. I have to watch Alfonso Soriano for another five years. While Mauer is in a different stratosphere than Soriano, the same logic applies: the contract has the potential to handcuff the team for years.
Let’s forget about all that for now, though. The Minnesota Twins, in my opinion, are one of the best organizations in all of baseball – right up there with the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox. They have an absolutely uncanny knack of identifying young talent (Johan Santana immediately jumps to mind, among others) which they will be able to surround Mauer with. One has to remember that in baseball young talent is very cheap for the first few years. Mauer gives them the legitimate cornerstone to build the franchise around that they haven’t had in years, arguably since the late Kirby Puckett. Thus to me, it is easy to see the Twins formula working: have a superstar (Mauer), a secondary star (Justin Morneau), some young talent (Kevin Slowey, Denard Span, and Francisco Liriano jump to mind – the latter only if he can stay healthy), and some cheap veterans (J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson.) That’s a very solid group.
Now let’s also get back to the baseball economics of the deal. Yes, this is a crapload of money – no one is disputing that. Consider this though: the Twins are opening a new stadium this year. What kind of message would it send to the fans if they let their biggest star (and hometown hero, no less) walk in free agency? Quite frankly, I’d be absolutely livid if they allowed that to happen. Even though they love their Twins up there in Minnesota, I have a hard time envisioning any scenario where they would maintain ticket sales, which could be an absolute deathblow for this franchise; let’s not forget, this franchise was threatened with contraction not even 10 years ago.
The bottom line is this: the Minnesota Twins simply couldn’t let Joe Mauer go; there was simply too much at stake. I want to liken the situation to what the Cleveland Cavaliers are facing with regards to LeBron James and his impending free agency – the local hero who could absolutely crush a franchise were he to move elsewhere (note: expect a LeBron James column sometime this summer.) Fortunately for the Minnesota Twins, they took millions of measures (184 million, to be exact) to avoid the possibility of a similar fate.