The Twins were able to avoid arbitration with one of their two best young hitters on Sunday by signing 2006 AL batting champ Joe Mauer to a four-year contract. Just over a week earlier, the team had made a move to avoid arbitration with the member of that duo by reaching a one-year agreement with 2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau. Of course, this series of events leads to an important question: why did the Twins hand a long-term deal to Mauer while coming to only a one-year agreement with Morneau? There are doubtlessly numerous reasons at play, not the least of which is that Terry Ryan probably didn't feel that he could commit too much money in one offseason. But, I think there might be deeper issues at work.
One concern that may have been at the forefront of the minds of Ryan and Co. is whether or not both players can be counted on to keep up their level of production over the life of a long-term deal. Ever since he was drafted, Mauer has essentially been viewed as a can't-miss prospect. The No. 1 overall pick in 2001, he hit for great averages throughout the minors and displayed the type of plate discipline that will almost always translate to the big leagues. Morneau was something of a different story. He was a third-round pick out of high school back in '99, and while he did hit for great averages and big power in the minor leagues, he never really showed outstanding patience at the plate, and players like that are always a risk.
Alas, as amazing as Mauer's 2006 campaign was, it was not overly surprising. And as rough as Morneau's 2005 season was, it didn't come as a big shock to a lot of people who follow prospects. The first two months of Morneau's 2006 season followed the same disappointing path as his '05 season, but then he busted out and pieced together a historical four-month stretch that helped propel the Twins to the playoffs and won him the MVP award. And as phenomenal as that stretch was, it was just that: a four-month stretch. Morneau seems to have put his problems behind him, but it is not unthinkable that he could regress toward his 2005 form within the next few years. Conversely, it would be very difficult to see Mauer regressing too much considering how few flaws or weaknesses he has shown at the plate. Furthermore, due to his defensive prowess at a highly important position, Mauer is going to be a very valuable player as long as he's hitting at all.
Another potential reason for locking up Mauer while hesitating to do the same for Morneau actually has nothing to do with the performance of those two players. The fact is that the Twins pretty much need Mauer to be around for the next several years, whereas that may not be the case with Morneau. Why do I say that? Well, the Twins have almost no catching prospects in their entire minor league system. The most promising backstop in their organization could very well be Chris Heintz, and he's 33. That's probably an overstatement, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a catcher at any level of the Twins' minor league system who has real major league potential at this point. Mike Redmond is a nice player, but he'll be turning 36 this season and will be gone soon enough. Once that happens, the Twins would be in very bad shape if they lost Mauer.
Meanwhile, the organization's lower-level minor league teams feature three promising first-base prospects. One of these is Brock Peterson, who hit .291/.356/.497 at Ft. Myers last season. In fairness, Peterson was 22 and in his second stint at that level, so the 49th-round draft pick from the 2002 draft is far from a superb prospect. Still, it was something of a breakout year and really put him on the map. A more impressive prospect is Erik Lis, who the Twins drafted out of the University of Evansville with their ninth-round pick in the 2005 draft. In his 1.5 years of pro baseball, Lis has hit .323/.389/.556, and should start this season at Ft. Myers. The youngest and most promising of the trio of 1B prospects is Chris Parmelee, who the Twins grabbed in the first round of last year's draft. Just 18, Parmelee is a patient and powerful hitter who has so much upside that Aaron Gleeman already has him ranked as the second-best prospect in the Twins system. It's worth noting that, while he was drafted as a first baseman, the majority of Parmelee's experience in the rookie league last year came in right field. Still, if his defense out there doesn't cut it, he could well end up refined to first base or DH.
All three of the players listed above are far from the majors at this point, but if one (or more) of them climbs furiously through the minor leagues over the next couple years and is knocking at the door of the majors in a couple seasons, it could provide the Twins with a cheap way to effectively replace Morneau's production, which is something they always have to look into as a small-market team.
By no means am I saying that I don't believe Morneau can be a successful player here in Minnesota for many years, but my point in all of this is that there may be reasons behind the team's decision not to extend his contract for several years like they did for Mauer.