By Matt Tschida
Mauer’s Positional Value
While sitting at Target Field the other day, I overheard a couple Twins fans regurgitating something they'd undoubtedly gleaned from the local media—“Mauer’s value is behind the plate... he's only worth $23M if he stays at catcher.”
I chuckled to myself. For this to be correct, they'd have to believe that Mauer is truly nothing more than a .300-ish singles hitter.
The same fans went on to say that Mauer changes the game defensively. As I've mentioned in previous posts, Mauer is highly overrated defensively. Is he a solid defensive catcher? Yes, but he is certainly not elite. He has a great arm, but he's not quick out of his crouch to block balls—he's been able to get by at times by "picking" rather than blocking. According to www.beyondtheboxscore.com, Mauer ranked 27th in block percentage in 2009, blocking only 89.1% of possible chances, and just 86% in 2008. I wasn’t able to locate anything more recent, but it’s safe to say he hasn’t jumped up 25+ spots into the top 5. When you add that to Mauer’s 28th-ranked 2011 catcher ERA of 4.31 (Rene Rivera’s catcher ERA, to put this into perspective, is 3.31), you see how overrated Mauer is behind the plate.
In theory, Mauer is more valuable playing catcher because of the offensive advantage he provides at the position. However, when he's not in the lineup that advantage is moot. The bottom line is that the Twins need a healthy Joe Mauer in the lineup. He is not an elite defensive catcher anyways, so if the Twins could have him play one game a week at first base, one in the outfield and one at DH, he'd have a better chance of staying healthy for an entire season. Eventually he could move permanently to one of those positions once the Twins find a catcher capable of holding his own both offensively and defensively.
People need to remember how spectacular Mauer was offensively the season before he signed the huge deal. Here are his 2009 numbers: .365/.444/.587 with 28 HR and 96 RBI in 138 games. I believe that those numbers, coming from any position, are worthy of $23M/year. For example, one of this season’s top MVP candidates, Adrian Gonzalez, signed with the Red Sox for about $22M/year and he's hitting .345/.406/.559. Moreover, he plays first base, an easier spot to find offense. Maybe Mauer can repeat those numbers while still playing catcher every day, but I would have a lot more confidence in him returning to form if he only had to catch 3-4 days a week—or if he didn’t catch at all.
Did Twins Make a Big Mistake By Not Trading Span?
Back at the trade deadline, the most talked-about rumor involving the Twins was a trade that headlined Denard Span going to the Washington Nationals in return for closer Drew Storen. I was one of the few people in favor of the deal because of Storen's huge upside, and because of the Twins' glut of outfielders on their current roster and in the farm system.
Many of those opposed to the trade were pointing to Bill Smith's Matt Capps-for-Wilson Ramos debacle, simply because both Capps and Storen happened to be Washington closers. False. Drew Storen was taken 10th overall in the 2009 draft, has been a top reliever ever since he was brought to the majors, and is still only 24-years old. Matt Capps, on the other hand, has been very inconsistent throughout his major league career, and is not a proven closer.
Many people also questioned why you would trade an affordable solid everyday player for a closer. Storen would probably rank about the same among closers in the MLB as Span does among center fielders—both would rank around the top 10-15 at their position. What's more, a closer can have an impact on most games simply by the way the the rest of the bullpen can be structured. You can see how big of a difference a great bullpen makes when you consider how bad the Twins' bullpen has been this season. The 2010 Twins bullpen went 21-18 with a 3.49 ERA. This season, they're 15-22 with a 4.60 ERA. That’s a 5-game swing in the standings, and several more between the ears.