The Minnesota Twins annoounced on Monday that long-time catcher and franchise player Joe Mauer will be their full-time first baseman beginning next season. The move has been proposed and debated for years, now, as a way to lessen injury risk for a player who has struggled with injury problems—both chronic and acute—throughout his career. This transition doesn’t guarantee Mauer’s health, but it eliminates certain things (concussions from foul tips, plate collisions, the toll of the constant crouching on one’s knees) that could have created more major issues.
Obviously, the reason the Twins didn’t simply make this move years ago is that considerations other than injury risk do factor into the equation. Mauer has less value at first base than at catcher. A good-hitting catcher, especially one of Mauer’s caliber, is far, far harder to find than a first baseman of similar quality. Not only that, but players who play other positions can’t usually move to catcher, the way many can move to first base. Mauer’s move forces the team to find a batter who can contribute to a Major League batting order while playing the most demanding defensive position on the diamond, instead of finding one who can do the same at the least important spot. (It may seem counterintuitive, since the first baseman has to participate in any groundout, but there just aren’t many MLB players of any kind who aren’t solid first basemen.)
It could be an especially important issue for the Twins, this lack of flexibility and positional value, because they have an elite offensive prospect (Miguel Sano, a right-handed masher with 50-homer upside) who might not be able to stick elsewhere on the diamond. Right now, Sano is a third baseman, and the consensus is that his arm is strong enough to make him a solid right fielder even if he can’t handle the heat of the hot corner. He’s huge, though, at six-foot-three and 230-plus pounds, which could mean he’ll get too big and slow (he already isn’t fast) to be a solid outfielder. An elbow injury ended his Winter League season prematurely, too, and if his arm is diminished in any permanent way by that, he ceased to have a future in an MLB outfield.
None of that is to dismiss or deride the decision to move Mauer. It likely will help him stay healthy, which is a worthy objective, and Sano should be a strong enough hitter to DH if that’s what it comes to. (It hasn’t come to that yet, anyway.) While it makes Mauer a less premium possession, it also makes him more reliable, and lessens the chance that he will be either broken down or absent from the lineup during the last years of his long and expensive contract. It’s a bit like trading a Lamborghini in for a Camry, and while a Lamborghini is a hell of a lot more fun (and valuable), an eight-year lease on one usually feels like a bad investment after four, and a Camry can stay on the road forever.
There’s one thing we should mention, a possible implication of this decision that could mean nothing, or could make for a very exciting and controversial winter in Minnesota. Here it is: Announcing an intent to move Mauer to first base opens the door to trading him.
Remember, while it’s riskier to keep him there, Mauer has much more value behind the plate than he has at first base. Moving him to first base means getting less than the maximum value he can deliver, on a per-game basis. Its upside is just the promise of him playing more games.
The Twins are done taking the risk that Mauer will miss substantial time in exchange for the marginal value of having him at catcher. Some other team, though, may still be willing to take that risk. That’s especially true given that the Twins are rebuilding, and so get less out of Mauer’s production than a team that could put that production directly and immediately toward a championship could.
The Braves, Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees, Phillies, Rangers and Blue Jays are contending teams with unsettled 2014 catching situations and the money to work with Mauer’s $23 million per season. The Red Sox, Dodgers and Rangers are especially flexible, and each of those three have the great prospects the Twins would certainly demand in return for Mauer. Brian McCann will fill one of these clubs’ vacancies, but the others should at least be making a call, if any of them think Mauer can stay healthy in even the short term. The specifics would have to be right in order for the Twins to be well-advised to actually make the trade, but it’s not out of the question, or at least it shouldn’t be. Mauer is a local boy and has a full no-trade clause, but he lives in Florida during the offseason. He’s not going to absolutely stonewall a trade, if one is brought to him.
This move is interesting. It bears watching for what it means for the Twins on the field next season, and for what it could mean even before then, off the field.Next post: David Price and the Chicago Cubs
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