The 35 Million Dollar Man: The Future of Joe Mauer

David Berger

With the 2009 regular season over and the best part of the year just beginning, it is tempting to cut through the junk of the American League Divisional Series and let the Yankees and Red Sox duke it out for the pennant for the third time this decade. The East Coast foes have a rivalry as bitter as any two teams have in all of professional sports, fighting over championships, nicknames and even players. Yankees and Red Sox fans are saying, “How great it would be for baseball if they met again to play seven of the longest games in history next Friday at the New House?”

But how likely is this, really? The American League is highly competitive, and both the Yankees and the Red Sox face tough foes in the ALDS. A more certain battle between the two foes lies ahead after the 2010 season, should Joe Mauer reach free agency.

Everybody knows his story by now: the can’t-miss superman, a national player of the year in two different sports at the same time (Football and Baseball). Drafted by his hometown team out of high school in 2001 to excel in the pros before he would’ve graduated from college. The first catcher to win the AL batting title in 64 years. And now? Well, let’s just say that Joe Mauer’s name has been engraved on the 2009 AL MVP award since the All-Star break. He’s also, apparently, an exceedingly nice guy. But he will likely receive even more titles over the next few years.

How does baseball’s richest player sound? In 2010, when his current contract expires, the stars could be aligned for Mauer to receive the largest per-season salary in the history of the sport.

The formula is pretty simple: take the best player in the game (who also happens to play sterling defense at the game’s toughest position) in the beginning of his prime, and add him to a pool of money-laden sharks who all could use the catcher’s services. The Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Phillies, Angels – you name it, every team is going to be trying to lure the then-27 year old over.

Many of these teams will actually need catchers, too. Sure, the Yankees have Jesus Montero, a top catching prospect, and the Red Sox could keep Victor Martinez (also an All-Star), but this is Joe Mauer we’re talking about, a man so gifted that he shrugs off his enormous 6’4″ frame to play Gold Glove defense. This was a man that Cal Ripken said had the best swing in baseball, who has actually managed to improve as a hitter over the past few years.

To understand the unique bargaining position Joe Mauer could be in, one need only look to historical examples. The easiest fit that comes to mind is Alex Rodriguez, who, at 25, declared free agency and signed a record-breaking $252 million contract. He, too, was a superior player in all fields playing at a premium position, entering the beginning of his prime. CC Sabathia, who is baseball’s richest pitcher, signed his contract in a similar position last year at the age of 27. Manny Ramirez also signed a hefty contract at the age of 28. That’s about it.

If last year’s free agency results among the best players are any indication, Mauer’s contract should not suffer from any facet of the recession and could well earn a prince’s ransom on the open market. $30 million a year? $35 million? Something along those lines is probably reasonable. And maybe even a bit more, if more than one of the East Coast juggernauts wants to get involved. The contract length, however, opens up a whole other can of worms that could eventually drive Mauer’s average salary down. While catchers are certainly known for their grittiness and pain tolerance, durability is not a strength. In fact, there have been only two catchers in the history of baseball who caught all of their team’s games (both in the same season, coincidentally). Mauer, in a good, healthy season, will catch no more than 145-150 games. Healthy is an important caveat as well – catchers get hurt more often than anyone else. Who knows how well Mauer’s body will hold up? Will he have to switch positions? I’d say that Mauer’s impressive skill set overrides any debate, but, then again, it’s much easier to gamble with someone else’s money

Then again, there’s the possibility that Mauer, who hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, chooses not to leave at all. Mauer could go down as one of the great Twins in history and break every offensive record for a catcher.

Maybe the Twins get more revenue from their new ballpark and are able to field a more competitive team. Maybe the Twins continue their youth movement and are actually able to keep their star players as they become too rich, and Joe Mauer is the centerpiece of a new Twinky dynasty.

Probably not. In many recent interviews, Mauer has stressed over and over again that money is not a concern; what is, however, is the chance to win. And in today’s baseball climate it may be tougher than ever to turn down an offer from one of baseball’s richest teams. One of those owners is gonna show their commitment by giving Joseph Patrick Mauer one hell of a contract.