Friday, August 12, 2016

What If Twins Never Signed Joe Mauer?

If you've paid any attention to one of the most criticized parts of the Minnesota Twins over the past handful of years, you've been made aware of the large contingent of fans upset over Joe Mauer's $184 million contract. Despite being the fourth-largest deal in MLB history at the time, and the largest ever for a catcher, it seemed to make perfect sense from the get go. Now more than six years later however, there's still plenty wondering (and even wishing), what if it never happened?

Let's set the stage. At the time he signed his contract, Joe Mauer was a soon to be 27 year old coming off of a second straight All Star appearance (third overall), and having won his first MVP award. He was a three time batting champion, Mauer owned a career .327/.408/.483 slash line, and he had collected two Gold Gloves to go with his three Silver Sluggers. Maybe the cherry on top of it all, the former first overall pick, was a St. Paul native and accomplishing it all for his hometown team.

Then on March 21, 2010 it happened. Prior to his final arbitration season, and headed into free agency, Minnesota locked up Mauer. He was given an eight-year, $184 million deal with a full no trade clause. Effectively, Joe Mauer was made a Twin for life.

So what if Minnesota never went down that road? What if Mauer simply played through his final arbitration year, making $12.5 million, and was dealt to a new organization? You have been refreshed on the production and the awards, but what did the external landscape for the Twins look like?

Taking a speculative approach for the purpose of this piece, lets assume the Yankees would have had significant interest, as would've the Red Sox given how well Fenway Park would play to Joe's strengths.

Heading into 2016, the top 10 prospects in baseball as decided by Baseball America included Jason Heyward (braves), Stephen Strasburg (Nationals), Mike Stanton (now, Giancarlo Marlins), Jesus Montero (Yankees), Briant Matusz (Orioles), Desmond Jennings (Rays), Buster Posey (Giants), Pedro Alvarez (Pirates), Neftali Feliz (Rangers), and Carlos Santana (Indians). There's some big names in that list, and there's some relatively big misses as well.

Let's hone in on the Yankees and Red Sox though. Starting in New York, their top two prospects in 2010 were both catchers: Montero, and a guy named Gary Sanchez. Behind them was Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, and further down the line, Eduardo Nunez. The top 10 prospects for Boston at the time included names like Casey Kelly, Jose Iglesias, Anthony Rizzo, Josh Reddick, and Garin Cecchini.

At this point, it's pretty easy to check off which of those prospects have amounted to something, and which haven't. Trying to be as fair as possible, the expectation that two top 10 prospects would head to the Twins seems like a good bet. Asking the Yankees for something like Sanchez and Betances, or the Red Sox for Iglesias and Rizzo seems like it could be fair.

So, let's assume that there wouldn't be any backlash for the Twins trading Mauer in the first place (a showstopper and a fool's errand, but whatever). From the Yankees side, Sanchez is just debuting so it's far to early to evaluate. Betances is one of the game's best late inning relievers, but he didn't become a dominant star until 2014, at the age of 26. Now 28, he'd be a nice piece to have in Minnesota, but hardly the missing link pushing the club into contention.

In terms of the Red Sox, Iglesias has been a defense first shortstop that owns just a 4.9 career fWAR since his 2011 debut. Still only 26, he's got time on his side, but expecting a peak to be much high probably isn't likely. Anthony Rizzo is easily the biggest name from above, and was moved from Boston, to San Diego, and eventually to Chicago. Making his debut with the Padres in 2011, he's since gone on to be an MVP candidate for the Cubbies, and own a career 18.4 fWAR at 27 years old.

Whether or not the trajectories and outputs of the aforementioned players would remain the same is far too much to assume. Regardless, a best case scenario looks like a set of players producing roughly 25 fWAR combined since 2010. So what has Joe Mauer been up to since his deal?

Having been worth 32 fWAR through the 2010 season, Mauer has now been worth 14.4 fWAR since signing his deal. After an injury shortened 2011 season (playing just 82 games), Mauer rebounded to become an All Star again in 2012 (4.5 fWAR), and 2013 (5.2 fWAR). Concussions forced him out from behind the plate (a premium position) and into his new role at first base. He's been far from the same player, despite having a solid 2016 season.

In trying to equate some financial equivalence to Mauer's production, we have to look no further than Fangraphs (again). From 2004-10 Mauer was worth $182 million while being paid $34.025 million. After 2011, Mauer has earned $138 million (by season's end), and has been worth $104.7 million (currently). Added together, Mauer has been paid $172.025 million to date, while being valued at $286.7 million.

At the end of the day, Joe Mauer isn't going anywhere for the Twins. His contract isn't an issue, and the fact that he doesn't hit a zillion homers isn't a massive downfall. What is reality though is that Minnesota is likely better off having hung onto their superstar (the backlash had they not likely would've been even worse), and both parties were dealt an unfortunate blow when brain injuries became an issue.

Trying to retroactively dictate the past is an interesting premise. This is one though that the Twins appear to have put the right foot forward.

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