The Minnesota Twins have not had many bright spots this season, but one seems to be the return of Joe Mauer‘s bat. After an injury-plagued disaster of a 2011 seasons, Joe Mauer is hitting like his old self again. After his 2-4 with a home run and a walk peformance in yesterday’s losing effort against the White Sox, Mauer now has a classic, Mauer-esque .301/.414/.423 (138 wRC+) line on the season.
One of the biggest concerns for the Twins going into the season was that they would not only be terrible (which has happened), but that if they needed to move one of their big contracts (Mauer and Morneau) for rebuilding purposes, that neither player would hit well enough to bring back much in trade given what they are owed. This is not to say that the Twins “have” to trade Mauer any time soon — if and when they should consider it is another discussion. The two-part question here a whether Mauer’s bat is really back after the mess that was 2011, and also whether he will be worth his sizable contract going forward.
The Twins signed Mauer to a massive eight-year, $184 million contract (for the years 2011-2018, although the contract was signed prior to the 2010 season) in the wake of a monstrous 2009 performance. Mauer did it all that year, playing solid defense at catcher while adding near-30 homer power to his usual combination of lots of walks, few strikeouts, and high batting average (.373!). It was so impressive he managed to take home that season’s MVP, as roughly the same pool of voters who gave Justin Verlander the 2011 MVP when he probably was not as valuable as Jose Bautista or Jacoby Ellsbury voted for Mauer when he clearly was not as valuable as Zack Greinke (/bitterness).
Silly awards complaining aside, Mauer’s 2009 was an incredible performance, even by his standards. His power went back to previous levels in 2010, but a .373 wOBA from a catcher is still very good. The contract still loomed a bit, but he looked like he could at least approximate its value… then the leg problems started up in 2011. When Mauer did manage to play, he could not hit the ball with nearly as much authority, which drove down both his BABIP, and his power went from average to just bad.
It is too simple to dismiss the 2011 performance due to those injuries, but Mauer had a long record of excellent performance before that. It all (including aging, regressions, and so on) has to be taken into account. ZiPS RoS sets Mauer’s current true talent at .302/.388/.431 — a .355 wOBA, which is good for a catcher, if not quite up to what his contract would lead one to expect.
However, while I again caution against setting ZiPS aside simply because it does not “know” how the injuries effected Mauer last year, signs so far this year point to Mauer being able to do his thing again. Mauer’s main calling card has always really been his ability to put balls in play, and his 9.7 percent 2011 strikeout rate is right in line with his 9.9 percent career rate. His .122 isolated power is not that impressive, but again, his offense was very valuable in years when he had ISOs around the same. One might be concerned about his .331 BABIP so far this season, but Mauer has almost always had an above-average BABIP (.342 career). Perhaps most impressively, Mauer’s walk rate so far this year is the highest of his career. It would be quite reasonable if someone wanted to say that Mauer’s “true talent” wOBA was around .370. A catcher with a .370 wOBA is quite valuable, and even with aging taken into account, would probably be worth the remaining money on Mauer’s contract.
But that brings us to a little problem: Mauer has only played about half of his games at catcher this season, with the remaining games split between first base and designated hitter. Some of this has been because of Justin Morneau‘s on-and-off availability, but the Twins are also trying to keep Mauer healthy and on the field by playing him at catcher less frequently. Given the last couple of seasons, it seems unlikely this situation is going to be reversed. If Mauer splits his time between catcher and first base/designated hitter, the positional adjustments would basically cancel each other out. That puts a big hit on Mauer’s value.
Starting in 2013, Mauer has six years and $138 million left on his contract, which pays him like something between a five and six win player. If Mauer is currently a .370 wOBA true-talent hitter, that is worth about 30 runs above average as a hitter in the current run environment. Adding in replacement level, assuming he splits his time in the field as he has this season, and taking into account annual attrition that puts him right at a bit over five wins. However, that assumes he gets 700 plate appearances, and given his past, 600 seems like a more than fair estimate of his playing time. That puts him between four and five wins.
These are all rough estimates, of course, based on uncertain projections. One win may not seem like much. However, over the number of years left on the contract, the different that one win makes is about $40 million dollars. That is not to say that Mauer could not help some team — not every contract has to match some WAR-per-dollars formula, and team contexts vary depending on things like their budget and closeness to contention. In the Twins’ case, however, Mauer’s contract relative to his expected performance currently fits neither their budget nor their playoff chances. That is not to say they could not work around it in the future, but the Rockies-Todd Helton situation is not one the team should bank on, either.
Mauer might, of course, have value to other teams that have more money and are closer to contention. Still, even if leaving aside his full no-trade clause and the potential PR nightmare that comes from trading Mr. Hometown Discount (ahem), a hitter of even Mauer’s abilities becomes more of a rarified taste given how his increasingly evident positional limitations effects his value. “Albatross” might be too strong of a word to use yet for Mauer’s contract. However, despite his return to form, Mauer is going to have to do better for that contract to give the Twins much value whether he stays or goes.