As we continue to get deeper into Spring Training, the lack of a Joe Mauer contract extension is slowly starting to worry many Twins fans, myself included. I've read quite a few articles over the last few days about why signing Mauer may in fact be a mistake and to be honest I'm always baffled when someone takes that stance. Without a doubt, signing Mauer to a long-term deal isn't without risks, but that could be said of any long-term deal for a team without unlimited resources.
The biggest arguments against a Joe Mauer extension seem to be that he's injury prone, the Twins would be giving about 20% of their payroll to one player and one of their top prospects is a near-ready catcher. Some people have touched on all three points when trying to explain why it could be a mistake, while others have simply tried to drive one of those three points home.
We'll address the myth that is Joe Mauer being injury prone first. Yes, he missed basically a full season in 2004 with a knee injury, and he missed the first month last year because of injuries. He played in only 109 games in 2007, but has played in 130 games or more four of the last five years. That includes last season, which is incredible considering he missed the team's first twenty-two games. Mauer has played in as many or more games than almost every catcher in baseball over the last five years, and he's been the best offensive catcher during that span. The fact is catchers simply don't play 160 games a year, and as long as Mauer continues to average 130 games a year he'll remain one of the most durable catchers in the league, contrary to the local media's opinion.
Some recent suggestions have assumed the Twins and Mauer are hammering out details on a 10-year, $200MM contract. Personally, I think that's pretty far off the mark. If the Twins are going to take such a major risk with a 10-year contract, it's only going to be if they pay Mauer at a discount price for those ten years. I think a 7-year, $140MM extension seems much more likely, but if it is indeed a ten year deal it'd likely be closer to $170MM than $200MM. A seven-year contract at $20MM a year is enough risk for a team like the Twins to take, and in my opinion it wouldn't be necessary for the team to extend that risk beyond seven years. There'd be little upside for the Twins to pay an extra $60MM over three years, and honestly I think Mauer would be fine with a seven year extension instead of a ten-year because it would give him the opportunity to leave if the Twins weren't contending in the latter stages of Mauer's career.
Even if we assume a 7-year/$140MM extension, that means the Twins would be paying Mauer more than 20% of their payroll for seven years. Factor in the three years and $42MM left on Morneau's contract and the Twins would have $34MM of about a $90MM payroll, or 38%, committed to two players between 2011 and 2013. Of course, Mauer and Morneau are two of the league's best players, and are well worth such a large commitment.
Lastly, expecting Wilson Ramos to step in and replace Joe Mauer seems silly. Even assuming Ramos is going to become a starting caliber catcher in the big leagues is premature. I'm as high on Ramos as probably anyone you'll find, but he's only played about half a season at AA. Of course, hitting .317/.341/.454 in half a season in AA as a 21-year old catcher after excelling at every previous stop gives plenty of reason to be optimistic. However, for a team hoping to contend year in and year out, the downgrade that would be created by going from Mauer to Ramos is something the Twins can't afford. The best case scenario would have Ramos tear up AA and receive a promotion to AAA about mid-season, and hit well there as well. That should increase Ramos' stock even more, and assuming the Twins do finally finish up this Mauer extension, Ramos may be a major asset to have as the trade deadline approaches.
Even with all of these reasons to keep Mauer, the most important reason can be explained in only one sentence. As a friend said to me, "The face of the franchise needs to be resigned." Indeed he does. I'm sick of worrying.