Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Protecting Mauer

Joe Mauer is the Twins' most valuable asset. I'm not breaking any ground with that statement; he's the proverbial "face of the franchise" and his salary consumes roughly 20 percent of the team's total payroll.

There's no question that when he's healthy, Mauer can be one of the league's biggest difference-makers. As such, it could be argued that the single most important priority for Ron Gardenhire this year is doing everything within his power to keep his star catcher free of injury.

That's no secret to Gardy. He has always made a point of resting Mauer at regular intervals throughout the season (for instance, when the team plays a day game following a night game).

Resting Mauer carries a price, though. Now that the Twins have traded away every other catcher in their organization with any semblance of offensive ability, they're left with Drew Butera as their sole backup option at the position. While I find Butera to be a likable player and easy to root for, it's not a stretch to say he might be the worst-hitting position player in the major leagues. He hit .197/.237/.296 last season, and considering his .214/.296/.317 career line in the minors, we should expect more of the same in the future.

The idea of taking Mauer out from the catcher position every fourth game or so was more palatable when his backup was Mike Redmond, a thoroughly competent offensive player, but when you sit Mauer in favor of Butera you're replacing one of the best bats in the league with one of the worst. Shifting Mauer to DH only means that you're replacing a quality bat like Jason Kubel or Jim Thome with Butera's meager stick.

The challenge for Gardenhire will be finding the right opportunities to rest Mauer while limiting the negative impacts of increased Butera dosages. Last year, Gardy's savvy handling of this issue may have had a significant impact on the team's fortunes.

Midway through the summer, Mauer was banged up. An array of ailments was taking a toll on his performance, and frustration came to a head when the reigning MVP elected to lay down a bunt in a vital late-game situation in July.

When the All-Star break rolled around, the Twins' season was seemingly hanging in the balance. They had sunk to third place and their best player just wasn't hitting. So Gardy took the opportunity to provide Mauer with some additional rest. In the five weeks following the break, Mauer caught only 19 of the Twins' 32 games, seeing an increased mix of DH duty and full days off. During that span, the Twins went 24-8, rising from 4.5 games out in the AL Central to 5 games up -- a commanding lead they'd never relinquish. It could be said that this was the defining stretch of their season.

The team's success during this span, with Mauer catching a little over half their games, can be attributed to a few different things, some not relating to the catcher position. Butera had maybe his best offensive stretch of the season, maintaining a .757 OPS over 14 games. Incidentally, it was also a relatively soft spot in the schedule, with 19 of the 32 games coming against the Indians, Royals, Orioles, Mariners and Athletics.

Most importantly, though, Mauer responded extremely well to the increased rest, hitting .442 with a 1.185 OPS.

It was an ingenious bit of strategy from the man who would go on to win Manager of the Year. Gardenhire recognized that his star player was lagging, noticed a lull in the schedule, and responded accordingly. Over the course of a full season, Gardy will have a hard time getting away with playing Butera at catcher more than 40 percent of the time, but during stretches like that one, the opportunity is ripe to rest up and rejuvenate Mauer.

It's a formula that Gardenhire would be wise to follow again this year. Mauer certainly will need his time off, as he's still experiencing issues with his surgically repaired left knee, but his resting pattern shouldn't be as simple as "every Thursday/Sunday afternoon and whenever Carl Pavano is pitching." The manager should seek to limit Butera's exposure against strong opponents as much as possible, and to react appropriately when Mauer seems to be especially tender.

Of course, this whole topic will likely reignite the debate over whether or not Mauer should at some point be moved away from the catcher position. For the long-term, that course of action is starting to seem more and more logical. He's had an extremely difficult time holding up over a full season at the game's most physically demanding position, and with $23 million owed to him annually over the next eight years that's becoming more and more tough to stomach.

Unfortunately, the front office traded away last year the one player in the organization with a decent chance at becoming an everyday big-league catcher. So unless a younger prospect can rise meteorically over the next couple seasons, Mauer's replacement would likely have to come from outside the organization.


cy1time said...

I hope that there's no debate on Maurer changing position until we have an adequate replacement at catcher. Butera's defense makes up for some of punchless bat, I don't mind him as a backup as much as most of the posters here, but no way I would hand him the job as everyday catcher. My guess is that Morneau will be gone when his contract is up and Mauer will split time between catching and playing first. I expect Mauer will be catching, at least part time, for the duration of his contract.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the front office traded away last year the one player in the organization with a decent chance at becoming an everyday big-league catcher.

I hope you're talking about Ramos and not Morales. I'll take Butera over Morales - the catcher has to play defense too. It's actually a pretty important part of the job description.

Ed Bast said...

The problem is, where do you move Mauer? First base, once Morneau gets hurt again? Third? What happens to Danny Boy? Outfield...well we've got all these "toolsy" outfielders in our fact it seems to me our minor league teams are made up entirely of toolsy outfielders and finesse pitchers - do we even have a shortstop in the system?

And then you're paying $23mil/year for a singles hitter to play a premium offensive position. A large chunk of his value comes from his defense. It's a quandary for sure.

I would make him the backup 1B instead of Cuddy. Have him play first when Morneau goes down for the last couple months of the season - that way he gets rested before the standard playoff slaughter, if there even is one.

Nick N. said...

I hope you're talking about Ramos and not Morales.

Of course. Morales clearly lacked the defensive tools to be an everyday (and maybe even backup) catcher.

mntwinsworldseries11 said...

Geez Ed you've been even crankier than usual lately. How bout a little positivity every now and again, this team is locked and loaded for another run this year.

Anonymous said...

"The manager should seek to limit Butera's exposure against strong opponents as much as possible"

But when mauer sits we can still bat butera 3rd, because batting order by position and not for anyone else to adjust to a new spot for a game because those things are way more important than intellegent lineup construction, right? I think youre hoping for something thats way over this organizations intelligence quota.

Anonymous said...

"I hope you're talking about Ramos and not Morales. "

Of course hes talking about Ramos.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that most, if not all of Mauer's value is the simple fact thet you get great production out of the catcher position. It is what has allowed the Twins to be so successful despite having meager bats at other typically 'offensive' positions. Not to mention, Mauer's handling of the pitching staff. It is tough to put a number on that. The catcher position is the most difficult/important/physically demanding defensive position in baseball. It is no surprise that those that catch open themselves up to injury and shortened careers. However, why must he be moved? Because he is highly paid? The Twins had to give Mauer the blockbuster contract - and I for one, am glad they did. The hometown kid puts butts in the seats, sells merchandise, and makes people like myself proud to be a Twins fan. Not to mention, he happens to be talented as well. He is the face of the franchise and will be until he retires. While giving him rest is strategic, moving him out of position is not. He is a catcher - deal with it. By moving him you remove his value and squander his talent. The track record is not favorabe in the history of the catcher - I realize that. Professional athletes get injured all the time - part of the trade. I would rather have Mauer behind the plate where he belongs as opposed to 'playing it safe' and hedging his huge contract by stuffing him in the corner.

Large Canine said...

an arguement could be that Mauer is a Rod Carew type hitter. What would a in his prime Rod Carew make in todays market? 23 mil per? Probably not but most likely pretty close. I would not be surprised if a team today would pay a Tony Gwynn or Rob Carew 20 mil per. But yes, 23 mil to play 1B wouldn't be a wise use of cash.

Disgruntled Guy said...

Considering that on DAY ONE OF SPRING TRAINING the guy gets an injection in his knees, it's fair to consider moving him to a less taxing position so that he can really maximize that contract value by actually playing it out, and not ending up another in a long line of catchers with career-ending knee problems.

Nick N. said...

I would argue that most, if not all of Mauer's value is the simple fact thet you get great production out of the catcher position.

If Mauer hits like he did in 2009, he's one of the most valuable players in the league regardless of what position he's playing. In the long run, moving him to a less taxing position probably increases his chances of putting together more offensive seasons like that one. Of course, the idea of moving him is contingent on having a viable replacement.

ScottyB said...

Tom Powers had a nice article in the last couple of weeks saying that Mauer should be limited to about 4 days of catching per week or about 100 games. Like Yogi Berra, he would move Mauer around to spell other players including games at first, third, and the corner outfield slots, with occasional time at DH. That way, no one loses out on many at bats,and it reduces the number of times when the Twins could lose their DH because of injury, as Mauer could just move from one position back to catcher if Butera went down.

It's still a scarey thought if Mauer goes down for any length of time, with no decent back-up in the system who's ready to play in the majors.

Dave said...

Moving Mauer around a ton of times is a recipe for disaster. Just because we all love Mauer doesn't mean he is immune to getting thrown off by playing every single position. When a player gets a spot start at a new position, the manager doesn't just say "go play third" five minutes before the game. Extra time is needed to get some practice in at the new spot. This extra practice gets done at the expense of BP and their regular position drills. Not to mention the fact that most hitters just can't get into a groove at the plate if they have no idea what position they will be playing. Baseball is a mental game and I just can't see Mauer thriving in this kind of situation.

Anonymous said...

Mauer can be an elite hitter no matter what position he plays but it is something special for a catcher to put up the numbers he has put up so far in his career. Moving him away from the position would be foolish, especially since the other catching options in the Twins system are so limited. I can see moving him to outfield or Dh for something like 30 or 40 games to take some of the wear and tear off of him (as long as there is a decent backup catcher) but to move him permanently would be to decrease his value as an all around player...fielding and calling games does count, the game isn't all about hitting....and he's a gold glover and handles the staff well as well as being a silver slugger, a batting champ and mvp.

Keep in mind that catching does not always mean a short career...Bench, Fisk, I Rod, Gary Carter, Scoscia, Posada, Piazza and more all had fairly long careers with the bulk of their play as catchers.

Let's have the move Mauer conversation if he continues to battle through injury plagued season after injury plagued season or his production drops off the table. In a "down" year Mauer still hit .327 with 43 doubles, 88 runs scored, 9 hrs, 75 rbi when hitters in front of him like Span and Hudson were also having down years affecting Mauer's rbi total....many catchers would be lucky to have that stat line as a career year.

Anonymous said...

...except that Gardy said he wouldn't hesitate to put Mauer in any position on the field cuz Mauer could play anywhere, he is such a fine athlete.

P.S. Ed Bast, why r u reading this blog if you hate the Twins so much?

Skip said...

Mauer is an MVP catcher. He's going to play that position most of the time, and rightly so. Gardy will give him breaks as needed over the course of the season. But until he physically can't do it any more, Mauer is going to be the guy wearing the mask and handling the pitchers. End of story.