Monday, March 28, 2016

Mauer And The Future That Is Now

This offseason, the Minnesota Twins realized they were closer than ever to a playoff berth. Having just missed out a season ago, the organization realized that top prospects were going to be the key to making it over the hump. Having stayed internal for most of the 25 man roster tweaks, the goal was to put the best club forward on Opening Day. For Paul Molitor, that meant asking 22 year old Miguel Sano to learn right field. Another name came up as a possibility, but what really is next for Joe Mauer?

There's plenty of reason to be skeptical about asking a 270 pound human being to play outfield in the big leagues. The Twins knew they were better with both Sano and Trevor Plouffe in their lineup however, so the hand became forced. While I have significantly less worries about how things turn out for Sano than most, many have wondered why it wasn't Mauer who was asked to make the transition.

At 32 years old, Mauer is fresh off his second season of settling in at first base. Despite being arguably one of the greatest Twins of all time, and being on a Hall of Fame trajectory with his work behind the plate, brain injuries caused him to reinvent his career. In doing so, the last two seasons have seen Mauer work hard at becoming an asset at first base. While the offensive production isn't on par for the position, his defensive runs saved numbers suggest that he's better than league average with the glove.

Had Mauer been moved to the outfield this season, Terry Ryan and Paul Molitor would have been asking their aging star to acclimate to another new role. At this point in his career, it's fair to suggest Mauer is not the athlete Sano is, and therefore would likely have just as many hiccups. In theory, it's understandable to see why the suggestion was presented, but it was never one that needed to play out.

That leads us to where Mauer is now, and what is to come. In my way-too-early lineup projection from back in December, I had Mauer hitting 5th for the Twins, and would have considered 6th as well. My thought process was rooted in Joe being put in a less substantial role, and that helping to spark his resurgence. I'm of the belief that Mauer has something left, and I think there's reason to believe he hits .300 again this season. What needs to be considered is exactly what happens when things don't pan out.

Following 2016, Mauer has two seasons left under contract with the Twins. Signed through 2018, he will be 34 and 35 in those years, and likely eyeing retirement in the not-so-distant future. 2016 remains a very big make or break year for the former catcher, as it should no doubt shape how the Twins position him going forward.

In 2015, Mauer saw his average dip to a career worst .265. His .309 BABIP was the lowest mark of his career, and he was facing defensive shifts now more than ever. Despite improving on his hard-hit contact rate from 2014, it still remained below 30% for the second straight season (a number in which he has always been above outside of his injury plagued 2011). The detractors are fixable, and that provides reason to believe there's more left in the tank. Whether it be sunglasses or some other adjustment that helps to bring forth the necessary improvements, betting against Mauer doesn't seem a wise move.

However, when things don't pan out as hoped, Minnesota also has other options. A great current area of strength for the Twins remains their outfield depth. Despite Sano being out of position, he seems a plausible fit at first base in the future (although it's another role he has very limited experience in). There there's prospect Max Kepler who seems positioned to push for significant playing time early in the 2016 season. The shift among the three outfielders is going to make Molitor reconfigure his infield.

After inking Byung Ho Park to a multi-year deal this offseason, the Twins have a guy in line for significant designated hitter and backup first base duties for the immediate time being. Whoever comes into the dirt from the outfield is going to be in a place where Park's contributions need to be factored in as well. This all leads us to what may be a (im)perfect storm for Mauer.

Should Joe struggle to trend upwards for the 2016 Twins, the next playoff team in Minnesota (likely 2017) may see him as a rotational guy. Providing days off for starters, and hopefully bringing a consistent professional approach to the plate, Mauer could be destined to play out the final years of his career as a reserve. While less than ideal for both the Twins and Mauer, it is a role that could help him to salvage production down the stretch, and allow him to contribute in a passing-of-the-torch type of way.

For a guy who already has amassed a higher career fWAR than Kirby Puckett and Tony Oliva, it's tough to look back and think of what could have been. However, as the Twins move more towards a new generation of relevancy, the time is coming to figure out just how Mauer fits into it. Again, I believe Joe has the ability to be a significant asset in 2016 and going forward, but if things take another step back, it may be wise for Minnesota to do so as well.

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