04/21/11 10:00 AM ET
Time to seriously consider moving Mauer
Twins need to keep All-Star on the field so he can keep hitting
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
That, above all else, is the question the Twins must ask themselves in regard to Joe Mauer's future as a catcher.
At what point is having Mauer provide unconventional offense at a premium position not worth the nagging injuries that could alter his production or, worse, force him to miss significant time on the disabled list?
This is no longer a blasphemous topic to ponder. It's a prudent one after December knee surgery, followed by a case of "bilateral leg weakness" that -- when coupled with a viral infection -- has had him out for more than a week and uncertain about a return date.
Mauer is signed lucratively for the long haul, has already had two surgeries on a left knee that is missing cartilage, has a history of back troubles that continue to be monitored and is freakishly tall for a catcher.
Contrary to the point made by MLB.com colleague Anthony Castrovince, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Twins -- be it this season, next offseason or at some point shortly thereafter -- need to seriously discuss the possibility of moving Mauer to another, less-demanding position.
I can think of 184 million reasons why.
That's how many dollars Mauer's record-setting deal is worth. And as we sit here today, all eight years of that contract -- save for an injury-riddled first three weeks of this season -- remain for a mid-market club that simply cannot afford to make financial mistakes of such magnitude.
The Twins need to maximize their returns by protecting their largest investment, even if it means delving into a topic Mauer isn't comfortable discussing. The best way for them to ensure that they get the most value out of the deal -- in the standings, on the stats sheet and through the turnstiles -- is to ensure Mauer is on the field and healthy so he can continue to do what he does best: hit.
Yes, by all accounts, Mauer is an above-average defensive catcher. And what makes him one of baseball's best players is his ability to produce at the plate while doing that.
But sometimes, playing that position makes hitting and staying healthy difficult -- especially if, at 6-foot-5, you're among the tallest catchers ever. Mauer has said he plans on staying behind the plate at least until his contract expires after the 2018 season, which would equate to roughly 1,800 games behind the plate if you factor in what he has played up to this point.
In baseball history, though, only four players taller than 6-foot-3 appeared in more than 1,000 games at catcher.
And that's no coincidence.
Height is a great advantage in sports, but not so much behind the plate, where those with a lower center of gravity have an easier time squatting and standing for what seems like a zillion times throughout the course of a season.
Sure, Mauer is only 28, having had a birthday on Tuesday. But the increased sensitivity of those larger joints is already on display.
Who's to say injury woes won't only increase as his age does the same?
"I guess you wonder about it, but it's funny, every time -- and I know going on the DL is not a good thing -- but every time I get hurt, everybody brings up everything," Mauer said. "This is my eighth season, and I've had some injuries, but you look at everything, and I've played a lot, too."
Well played, Mauer.
It's true, he has, for the most part, been able to stay on the field, averaging 116 games behind the plate per season from 2005-10. In that time, Mauer has compiled an American League Most Valuable Player award, three Gold Gloves, four Silver Sluggers and an .886 OPS that has been the best at his position.
For obvious reasons, Mauer prefers to stay put. He loves to catch, has never really played anywhere else in his pro career -- besides 14 Minor League games at first base -- and his value is far greater while producing at a position that doesn't typically lend that type of production.
The Twins want to keep him there for the same reasons. And if Mauer can continue to hit as well as he has while playing as often as he has behind the plate, there is no debate here.
The debate lies here: Can Mauer stay healthy and effective as a catcher for much longer?
It's the question that should have the Twins considering whether Mauer needs to move sooner rather than later. (Don't spend too much time agonizing over where Mauer can play with Justin Morneau at first base through 2013, and Jim Thome, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young hogging the DH and corner-outfield positions. Spots tend to open up for players this important and this expensive.)
But there is one important wrinkle here: Mauer has to be on board first.
It's perhaps the most important aspect in all of this, because the last thing you want is for your franchise player to be an unhappy one. There hasn't been anything to suggest a move from behind the plate is something Mauer would accept, let alone be happy about.
But he seems like a rational, big-picture guy. Maybe, once he realizes how continuous injuries can limit his production, alter his playing time and hurt his generous employer, he'll begin to see the benefits of playing a less-demanding position -- one that can not only keep him healthy, but may even allow him to be a better hitter.
Maybe he'll see that, at some point, it's simply not worth it anymore.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.