Last week, John Bonnes sat down with Twins general manager Bill Smith for an interview about the upcoming offseason. The interview, which serves as an addendum for the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook (if you've already purchased a copy, you'll be receiving the interview transcript in full, and of course you'll also get the entire interview included if you buy a copy from this point forward), covered a variety of topics, but today I'm going to focus on a particular portion of the conversation that lasted only a few seconds but may have provided one of the most compelling takeaways.
The Twins have a number of issues to tackle this offseason, but one pretty clearly rises above all others, and that's sorting out the Joe Mauer situation. The likely AL MVP and franchise cornerstone has just one year remaining on his current deal, and could become unaffordable to the Twins if he's able to venture into free agency next winter. I wrote a lengthy essay covering this topic for the Handbook, and ultimately concluded -- as I'm sure most fans have -- that working out a contract extension with Mauer during this offseason is absolutely imperative and should rank as Smith's No. 1 priority.
It was a topic that needed to be broached in the TwinsCentric interview, but Smith has been extremely tight-lipped when the matter of Mauer's contract has come up over the past few months. Seemingly realizing this, Bonnes was very cautious in approaching the subject during the interview, opening his line of questioning by saying, "I'm not sure how much I really want to get into this, but I want to ask a little bit about the Mauer extension." Smith quickly interjected, stating that Bonnes "may want to get into it deeply, but I'm not going to."
And so, John rerouted. "Well, let me ask one question that's not really about the contract," he said. "If an extension doesn't get done by spring training, do you feel comfortable going into next year with Mauer as a walk-away free agent?"
"Well, he's a player signed through 2010," Smith retorted.
Bonnes pressed on. "But for instance, Santana was a player signed for the next year as well..."
Finally, Smith relented and answered the question. "If we think Joe Mauer wants to stay here long-term, yes, we feel very comfortable going into next year."
It could be that Smith responded in this manner only to avoid backing himself into any sort of corner. Still, "very comfortable"? I wrote extensively in my essay for the Handbook about the perils of entering next season without a new contract for Mauer. His impending free agency would serve as an extremely unwelcome distraction as the team tries to build positive public sentiment in Target Field's inaugural season. And, of course, if Mauer makes it to the end of the year without an extension, the New Yorks and Bostons of the world will be able to jump into the bidding, which could put the Twins in a highly precarious position.
So, if indeed the Twins feel that Mauer wants to stay here long-term, it's hard to imagine that they'd actually be comfortable entering next season without a new deal in place. Which brings us to the other question raised by Smith's comment: what if the Twins don't get the sense that Mauer wants to stay?
Being a rather timid St. Paul native with countless ties to this area, it seems highly unlikely that Mauer would be opposed to forging a long-term deal with the Twins. But I suppose it is possible that he has his sights set on the huge money and increased national exposure that would come along with a move to a larger market. Or perhaps he doesn't feel that the Twins will ever be willing to take the steps needed to win a championship. It was a combination of those factors that seemingly fueled Johan Santana's desire to move elsewhere.
If the Twins get the sense that Mauer would like to test the free agent market, one has to believe Smith would not be "very comfortable" at all entering the 2010 season saddled with the risk of losing his star catcher at the end of the year for only a pair of draft picks, and the general manager essentially admitted that fact by including that big old "if" in his answer.