Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Mauer, Not Morneau: Why?

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.

13 comments:

Twins Territory said...

The Twins tried to sign Morneau to the same deal that they signed Mauer to, but hewanted more money.

Nick N. said...

I tend to not take seriously anything written in Sid Hartman's column.

Anonymous said...

Agreed on Sid. But someone on my site commented that there could be concern about how Morneau would handle the security of a long-term deal, whereas there is no concern with Mauer. That's a fair point.

SethSpeaks.net

Nick N. said...

Good thought Seth. I do recall seeing Ryan specifically mention that he wasn't worried about how Mauer would handle that security. I think it's very possible they didn't feel the same way about Morneau.

Peter R. said...

As everyone else has said, they want to see Morneau do it again before they get locked into a huge deal. Can't say I blame them.

Now that he's not living with Mauer anymore, who knows what could happen. :-)

Drew said...

I read this somewhere but Morneau was offered about the same deal as Mauer. Morneau turned it down and opted to sign a 1 year deal instead. I don't see this as a huge deal since the Twins will continue to work with Morneau to sign him long term. Morneau's contract (due to timing)ends after the 2009 season.

Nick N. said...

Morneau's contract (due to timing)ends after the 2009 season.

Actually, he is under the Twins' control until after the 2010 season. Mauer would have been free agent eligible after 2009, but Morneau has an extra year because his service time started later.

Anonymous said...

Look, it's not like the Twins wouldn't like to get a long-term deal done with Morneau. But there are a number of other negotiating issues as impediments that aren't there with Mauer.

Morneau has already said he's not going to be looking to give a hometeam discount to the Twins. He wants market value. Morneau just won an MVP, which carries more weight than a batting title. Morneau just put together the first 30 HR season for the franchise in a gazillion years, so that adds to his negotiating position.

Further, let's think about this from the Twins perspective. What do they gain from a 4 year deal? Cost certainty and not much else. A Mauer-esque deal doesn't buy out any years of free agency in this case, and that has to be a consideration.

As much fun as it is to mock Sid (and lord knows it is fun), his sourcing on contract issues is usually pretty decent.

Anonymous said...

But the key point there is that it wouldn't make much sense to offer Morneau a 4 year deal since it would not buy out any free agency. Now you'e talking about a 5 year deal and I think we know that Terry Ryan is very uncomfortable doing that. Ryan may be wise to just go with the one year deal. As was mentioned above, that MVP award is a big thing. It'd be buying high for the Twins now. Hopefully he comes back with another stellar season for the Twins in 2007, and if he does, 4 years, $33 million won't even be a starting point any more because of the extra year. But if he has even a league average AL 1B season (which would still be good), they could get him at a more reasonable price next year. Not a big deal either way. They have him for three more years, after 2007. I would rather they get Cuddyer locked up for 3-4, and concentrate on extending Santana and Nathan.

SethSpeaks.net

demotivator said...

Let's not forget the more provincial side of the story. Mauer is "one of us." They market that to the moon and back. Minnesotans have serious issues with people that are outsiders. This alone would push the Twins to go with Mauer, who T. Ryan in an interview noted is the face of the Twins. Read that "he sells well."

It is a good thing that Mauer is a great player; it makes the signing a good deal. However, I will be sorry when Morneau goes but sorrier yet when we lose Santana.

mrjaybee said...

I think the Twins want Justin in their lineup for the next several years. After the dearth of offense from that position since Herbie retired, last year's performance by Morneau was a tremendous breakthrough. If you don't think that opposing pitchers fear this guy, consider how well Cuddyer did hitting in front of him. I also believe he's shown that he is serious about his game and is dedicated to improvement; even over last year's MVP numbers. Mauer, Santana and Morneau. We better do all we can to keep these three guys locked up for the next few years.

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