Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Position Analysis: Catcher

As we roll into mid-March, it's about the time for us to get started on something that has become an annual spring tradition around here: the Position Analysis series. Each year we go through each position for the Twins and take a look at potential battles, project the likely starter, and take a look into the strengths and weaknesses of the position. Catcher is a pretty set position for the Twins. Let's take a look:

Projected Starter: Joe Mauer
2006 Stats: .347/.429/.507, 13 HR, 84 RBI

Can Mauer win another batting title in '07?

Potential Backups: Mike Redmond, Chris Heintz

Clearly the catcher position is loaded for the Twins. At 23, Joe Mauer is already one of the best catchers the game has ever seen. Last year, he became the first backstop ever to win a batting title in the AL, the first catcher to lead the majors in hitting, and the first to win a title in either league since Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi did it in 1942. In other words, you can mark Mauer down as a Hall of Fame talent just embarking on a great career.

Last year, Mauer stepped up and did a lot for the Twins offensively. There are many--myself included--who thought Mauer was the MVP last year. At one of the toughest positions in the game, Mauer put up great numbers. He was also feared, as indicated by the 23 intentional walks he received, good for third in the AL. There isn't much Mauer can do to improve, other then add the power people are waiting for, but he probably will anyway.

Mauer may never have the 30-HR season people seem to want, but that isn't such a bad thing. There are some recent great hitters that are good comps for Mauer in Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, and to some extent, Derek Jeter. Now, obviously all those guys are a little different, but the similarities are that all of those guys had one or two big power seasons in which their home run totals skyrocketed (17 for Gwynn in 1997, 24 for Boggs in 1987, 24 for Jeter in 1999), they are all patient (Boggs the most), and in general they are all mostly doubles hitters.

If Mauer keeps walking, pumping out doubles, racking up the hits, and posting averages between .320 and .360, he'll been on a list with Mike Piazza, Mickey Cochrane, Yogi Berra, and Johnny Bench for all-time great catchers. For next year, I'm projecting his average will fall a little and he'll add some power, but overall, he'll stay consistent. I would predict a line somewhere around .325/.420/.490 with 18 home runs and 90 RBI.

Missing in the offensive stats are the defensive contributions Mauer makes daily. Along with his batting title last year, Mauer was a viable contender for the Gold Glove. But the argument is moot, since the award has been rendered meaningless, as the coaches who vote always ignore it when veterans like Ivan Rodriguez and our own Torii Hunter lose some of their defensive prowess. Of course, nothing is worse than Derek Jeter constantly getting fielding awards.

Mauer gunned down 38% of potential base-stealers last year and it would have been a higher number if not for the multiple occassions in which Juan Castro dropped the ball or failed to tag a sliding runner when Mauer's throw was there in time. Needless to say, there are countless ways in which Mauer will continue to be a huge asset for the Twins this year.

As for competition, there is none. Mauer has a great backup in Mike Redmond and I'll go ahead and remind everyone that they were the best catching duo ever last year in terms of batting average. Redmond gives the Twins a durable veteran who can run the staff well and provide some hits when Mauer needs a day off, and Redmond also gives the Twins the opportunity to DH Mauer without losing much on offense or defense. Should an injury occur, Chris Heintz is a capable backup who will be playing in Rochester.

Overall, this position is filled by the best in the business. Expect greatness again.