When the American League Most Valuable Player voting results were released earlier this week, Justin Morneau found himself runner-up by a relatively thin margin, an indication that without his season-ending slump he may have found himself with a second MVP trophy in three years, an immense honor for the 27-year-old first baseman of humble origins.
Of course, there's nothing too surprising about Morneau's success on the MVP ballots in 2006 and 2008. A slugging first baseman with big RBI totals playing for a successful team and hitting in a lineup where his power numbers stand out immensely, Morneau is the type of player BBWAA voters have long drooled over.
Yet, lost in the impressiveness of Morneau's top finishes on the MVP voting is the impressive feat of his teammate, Joe Mauer, who crept up to a fourth-place finish this year after placing sixth in 2006. Mauer's rise in the vote doesn't necessarily reflect improved production (his numbers in '06 were, in fact, markedly better), nor does it necessarily reflect a diminished field of competition (the 2006 ballot featured a similarly unremarkable crop). Instead, I think Mauer's two-slot rise in the ballot illustrates two trends: an advancement in the way the voters think, and Mauer's continual ascension as a national celebrity.
Some might be a bit reluctant to accept that first point, but hear me out. While there are still some stubborn folks on the voting committee -- such as Tom Boswell and Evan Grant -- who are stuck focusing on the narrowly defined MVP qualifications of yesteryear, I've seen noticeable progress in recent years as beat writers and columnists who were raised on a few simple statistics have been more and more open to delving deeper and giving serious credibility to the advanced metrics that tell us so much more about a player's performance. More and more, I see writers taking positional value and defense into account, and putting increased value into numbers like on-base percentage and OPS, while putting less credence into intangibles like leadership and clutchness. I think we saw that this year, with Dustin Pedroia and Albert Pujols capturing the honor in their respective leagues. Both were not really traditional candidates; Pedroia, the second baseman without big power, and Pujols, the transcendent hitter whose team handily missed the playoffs.
More than that though, I think Mauer's improved voting results can be attributed to the fact that he's more nationally known. He's now won two batting titles. He started the All Star Game for the AL this year and reeled in his first Gold Glove. Nationwide, I think people are starting to appreciate more and more what an exquisite and unique player he is.
The question now, with just two years remaining on his current contract, is how this widely perceived increase in value will play out when it comes to negotiating a contract. When Mauer's agent meets with members of the Twins' front office to discuss a potential contract extension, is Mauer viewed as the patient, singles-hitting catcher who gets on base to set up the team's true MVP-caliber slugger? Or is he viewed as one of baseball's most valuable players whose contributions at a weak offensive position make him a rare and highly valuable asset?
The question is important, because these contract discussions could start taking place during this offseason, if they haven't already. For while the Twins can certainly wait until next offseason to enter real contract negotiations, extending him now -- with the star catcher still two full years away from sniffing free agency -- might be cheaper, and as we saw with the Johan Santana situation that unfolded last winter, dealing with a highly coveted player who is entering his last season before hitting the open market can cause some real headaches.
So just how much would it cost to extend Mauer? Unfortunately, there's no good baseline to go by. There are a few catchers around the league who are on Mauer's plane, such as Russell Martin, Brian McCann and 2008 NL Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto, but all of these players are young and none of them have signed free agent contracts as of yet. It's difficult to judge what Mauer's comparative value is on the current market.
If he wants, Mauer can pretty easily argue that he's the most irreplaceable member of the Twins' roster, both from a production and public-relations standpoint, and as such he could command a staggering contract in the neighborhood of $18 million a year over an extended period. People should think twice before expecting that the St. Paul native will offer a friendly hometown discount, as he's never really done so before (both his initial signing bonus and his current four-year contract were pretty much market value). One has to expect that, at the very least, Mauer will be looking at a five or six-year extension with an annual salary exceeding $15 million. That's a major investment, and a fairly risky one when you consider Mauer's injury history and the very real possibility that he could need to be moved from behind the plate at some point (a move which would substantially lower his value). Is it worth it?
My answer: yes. And I say that without really having any clue what terms Mauer and his agent will be commanding. I'd say that the Twins No. 1 priority over the next two years should be making sure they can lock up Mauer to a long-term deal, even if the expense is exorbitant. It is extremely rare that a player with such a combination of offensive skill, defensive aptitude, quality character and immense fan appeal comes along, and losing him for unwillingness to pay is simply not something this organization can afford to do.
The year of 2010 marks the beginning of a new era in Twins baseball as the team begins play in Target Field. The increased revenue provided by this stadium should go directly toward making sure that Mauer is out there on that field in a Twins uniform for the better part of the next decade. The novelty of a new ballpark wears off after a couple years, and eventually people will stop buying tickets just to come see it. But people will always pay to go out and see a historically great player, which Mauer seems well on his way to becoming.