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Joe Mauer and the Mets

Posted By Howard Megdal On August 29, 2012 @ 12:51 pm In Today's Mets headlines | Comments Disabled

So Joe Mauer, catcher for the Twins, was placed on waivers [1]. On Twitter, I suggested that Mauer would be a tremendous addition for the Mets, though it will obviously not happen. Briefly, to stipulate why:

1. The Mets cannot afford to add salary, and Joe Mauer earns $23 million per season through 2018.

That is all. The rest is moot. This isn’t happening. There are other aspects to this: the Twins may simply be fishing Mauer out there to see if there’s a great deal for them; there’s no guarantee they’d simply turn Mauer over to the Mets if they claimed him.

But I found it really interesting to hear some of the pushback on why, if the Mets had owners capable of allowing the team to operate at a payroll more consistent with the New York market (or even the smaller markets, like Philadelphia or Boston), it still wouldn’t be a good idea to add Mauer for nothing other than assumption of his contract.

And boy, I couldn’t disagree more. Not because I believe in making moves to make a splash, consequences be damned. I don’t. And not because I believe long-term contracts aren’t risky. I do, and they are.

Indeed, I begin as a huge skeptic of long-term deals. But I think they have their place, utilized judiciously, particularly within the framework of a payroll structure more in line with the Phillies or Red Sox, than the current payroll of the Mets, which is roughly half as large. It is worth remembering that just because Jason Bay signed a long-term contract, not all long-term contracts will turn out like Jason Bay’s.

The rule is a simple one: I believe large-market teams should spend on long-term deals, absorbing the risks, to get in-prime seasons of players who offer premium production at positions where obtaining it by other means is difficult or impossible. This is particularly true of players whose skills are diverse enough to weather a decline in some of them, or who can produce enough offense to be valuable even at a less-demanding offensive position as decline sets in. (Alex Rodriguez, at age 24 after the 2000 season, with that bat, that speed, playing elite defense at shortstop, is the gold standard of this thinking.)

Through that prism, the mistake with Jason Bay is an obvious one. Bay plays left field, a low-end defensive position, and he didn’t play it well before coming to the Mets. His marketable skill was power, but he was turning 31, and the decline he would likely experience in power would make him an unlikely asset over the course of a four-year contract. There was no reason to expect the utter loss the contract has been from day one, but look at the checklist. Premium position? No. Prime years? No. Any place for him to go if offense declined? No. Not a good idea, regardless.

Compare that to a free agent the Mets signed back in 2005: Carlos Beltran. They acquired a center fielder (premium position) with power, speed and a plus glove (multiple skills) who would still have a bat that played in the less-strenuous corner outfield positions (see 2011) in time for his age-28 season (peak years). Not surprisingly, it worked out, no matter what Fred Wilpon seems to think.

So now, let’s consider Mauer. He’s in his age-29 season, and it has been a good one. Playing primarily catcher, 62 games, along with 32 at designated hitter and 25 at first base, Mauer has an OPS+ of 130, right in line with his career average of 134.

That is, needless to say, extremely good for a catcher. Among primary catchers, Mauer is third, behind only Yadier Molina and Buster Posey. And let’s discuss position scarcity: only seven primary catchers have an OPS+ above 97. So Mauer’s offense at catcher is a rare, hard-to-find asset.

Ah, but past performance does not guarantee future results, right? The Mets would be assuming a six-year, $138 million obligation, with no guarantee of a repeat of his age-29 season. So what exactly would they be getting?

Let’s start with the durability question many of those I interacted with on Twitter brought up. Mauer battled through injuries in 2011, limiting him to 82 games. But the idea that he hasn’t been a durable player doesn’t hold up to scrutiny against his peers.

Mauer’s games played since 2008: 146, 138, 137, 82, 120 (with a month left). That 2011 sticks out as a notable exception. In fact, among primary catchers since 2008, Mauer is sixth in games played with 623, trailing Russell Martin (625), A.J. Pierzynski (636), Yadier Molina (648), Kurt Suzuki (650) and Brian McCann (656). None of these catchers have many questions about their durability. And Mauer, by the way, blows them all out of the water in terms of offensive production. He’s at an OPS of .879; only McCann, at .825, comes close.

So over the last five years, Mauer has offered premium production at an extremely hard-to-find position, and has done so while staying on the field about as often as anyone at the position.

But he does play a demanding defensive position, and I wondered what the effect of such a workload had on catchers his age. Going back to 2003-2007, only one of the top ten in games caught completed that five-year period younger than Mauer is now: Victor Martinez. That’s interesting for a couple of reasons to me: it suggests a general ability of catchers to stay behind the plate later in their careers, and also means that Mauer has a good chance of doing so more effectively than most of the catchers from that period.

The three closest in age to Mauer among that group were Martinez, 28, Pierzynski, 30, and Brian Schneider, 30. Schneider can be thrown out, since his offense is what kept him from continuing as an everyday catcher. Martinez is a pretty good comp, though his offense was not at the level of Mauer’s. He still managed 500 games from 2008-2011, though a knee injury has cost him all of 2012. His bat and ability to stay in the lineup at catcher and first base made him quite valuable.

Pierzynski, incidentally, has been essentially the exact same player in 2008-2012 he was from 2003-2007. His OPS dropped from .753 to .747, and his games caught stands at 636 from 2008-2012 with a month left, after catching 672 from 2003-2007.

There’s another comp, though, that you might be familiar with: the Mets just had a bobblehead day in his honor. Mike Piazza put up an OPS+ of 160 through age 29, averaging 136 games per year for six seasons, through the end of his 1998 season. Then the Mets signed him for seven years, $91 million. Piazza went on to post an OPS+ of 133 over those seven seasons, averaging 123 games per season.

The Mets could not, it turned out, rest him by playing him at first base. Mauer, by contrast, has already proven to be a competent first baseman. And should age force Mauer from the plate at some point, consider that his 130 OPS+ in 2012 would rank sixth in the major leagues among first basemen. Age could decline his offensive totals; getting out from behind the plate could improve them. So if the Mets eventually needed to go that route with Mauer full-time, he’d be an asset, not a liability, at the position.

(By the way, the argument for extending David Wright, whose career OPS+ is 136 to Mauer’s 134, is roughly the same one as adding Joe Mauer, though Wright will be a year older when the Mets can extend him after 2013, and plays a position where offense is slightly more plentiful. So consider that opposing a Mauer deal and favoring a Wright deal doesn’t make much sense. I’m for both, incidentally, for similar reasons, though actually adding both could create a logjam at first base. Still, Mauer would already be signed; there’s no guarantee Wright will agree to stay with the Mets.)

In the meantime, consider what an upgrade from Josh Thole (68 OPS+ in 2012), Kelly Shoppach (career .658 OPS against righties, and anyhow, unsigned for 2013 as of now), Mike Nickeas and Rob Johnson (not even going to bother with these stats, for all of our sakes) Mauer would be. The best catching prospect in the organization, Kevin Plawecki, was just drafted and is years away.

Mauer wouldn’t turn the Mets into contenders by himself. But it is hard to argue there’s a bigger single move that would improve the 2013 Mets, with a very good chance of helping the 2014-2018 Mets to boot, than adding Joe Mauer and his contract for nothing.

Consider: the Mets would be adding some peak Mauer years, at a position that is extremely hard to fill with premium talent by other means, with a player whose bat should allow him to transition to a less demanding defensive position over the life of his contract.

Like I said at the top, it isn’t going to happen. Nor is the move free of risk. So maybe this is a lot of effort to show that something should happen.

But it is precisely the kind of risk a team with the revenue stream the Mets have ought to take, when that stream isn’t getting sopped up to pay ownership’s enormous debts.  Avoiding all long-term risks on contracts doesn’t make sense to me. I’m a skeptic of long-term deals. But even I don’t believe that.

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