Monday, January 31, 2011

Have We Seen the Best of Joe Mauer?

Joe Mauer was pretty darn good last season. He hit .327 with an on base percentage of .402. He had a 137 OPS+ and a wOBA of .373. It seems anyone would take those numbers every year and smile a lot. But those final numbers seemed a bit of a letdown after the season he put together in 2009 with his unexpected 28 homers and the gaudy 1.031 OPS he put on the board. Mauer's 2010 campaign, after his years from 2005 through 2008, make 2009 seem more like an outlier than a season he could repeat again. In some ways, 2009 for Mauer is looking oddly reminiscent of the season Wade Boggs had in 1987 when Boggs hit 24 homers, the only season he ever hit more than eleven.

But can the Twins be thrilled with the Mauer of 2010? Well, heck yes. But with one caveat. According to Fangraphs, Mauer's 2010 season was worth $20.4 million. That's the good news. The not so good news is that starting in 2011, Mauer will be making $23 million. You would want your star player making that kind of money to at least be worth what he is making. But then again, even at his 2010 production, Mauer was the best catcher in baseball. That's worth a lot right there.

But there are certainly questions on how long Mauer can catch. He again got dinged up pretty badly in 2010. There were various reports of sundry health problems during the course of the season. The dilemma for the Twins is whether to keep Mauer behind the plate where the wear and tear can ruin his health and his value, or do you move him out of that position and put him someplace where he isn't as valuable? His batting style is valuable as a catcher but maybe not as much so as a left fielder.

Early projections are still bullish on Mauer. Bill James projects Mauer's 2011 to include 15 homers, a .338 batting average to go along with a .927 OPS. The Fans projection (not this Fan mind you) projects Mauer at .333 with 14 homers and a .901 OPS. The Twins would be happy with that and those numbers would again make Mauer the best catcher in the world.

There is one other sign of concern with Mauer. The last two years, Mauer has sunk down to 26 percent in throwing out potential steals. In Mauer's first few years, those numbers were: 39, 43, 38, 53 and 36 percent. The drop certainly could be put in the pitcher's pocket for not holding runners well. But the number is disconcerting after those numbers just listed.

Joe Mauer is going to be 28 in April and should be at the peak of his career. The Twins are banking on that being the case. If Mauer stays behind the plate, he will continue to be the best catcher in the game. And in his 28 years, he's already won three batting titles and an MVP award. The big question for this Fan is whether or not, despite his age, we've seen the best of Mauer already. This Fan sure hopes not.

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