Monday, May 14, 2012

Mauer Should Move to Third

For years, fans and media alike have argued whether the Twins would benefit more by moving "injury-prone" Joe Mauer to a less taxing position than catcher. For years, I've been arguing that Mauer is most valuable as a catcher, by a wide-margin, and for the team to get fair value from his enormous contract they need him to catch as long as possible.

While all of that remains true, the fact is the Twins don't have a short-term or long-term solution at third base. Prospect Miguel Sano is killing the ball for Beloit as one of the league's youngest players, but as he continues to fill out there's no guarantee he'll remain at third base long-term.

This season is clearly a rebuilding season for the Twins. Currently they're a major league worst 10-24 so any hopes of making the playoffs should probably be tossed out the window. If the team were to move Mauer to third base for the remainder of this season and allow him to get acclimated with the position, it would help the team more long-term. Ryan Doumit isn't a great defensive catcher and certainly isn't someone the team will want to rely on into the future, but he's decent enough as a one-year stop gap for the rest of this season.

Now, it may seem odd that I'm suggesting Mauer change positions this season, considering he's been as durable as ever. He's played in 33 of the team's 34 games. However, he's only caught in 16 of those games, while spending the other 17 games between first base and designated hitter.

Mauer's .286/.406/.387 line this season is good for an OPS of .792. The average AL catcher this season is hitting .240/.310/.394, or a .704 OPS, which makes Mauer's OPS about 10% higher than the average catcher. However, Mauer has only caught in about half of his 33 games. That makes his bat less valuable, because generally 1B and DH are the two best offensive positions in the league.

First baseman this season, though, are hitting even worse than catchers. The average AL first baseman is hitting just .235/.309/.387, which is good for just a .696 OPS. That number will almost certainly improve over the season, but as it is now Mauer has outproduced the average first baseman by even more than he has outproduced the average catcher.

So in 25 of Mauer's 33 games this season, he's been well above average offensively for the defensive position he's playing. Why even bother moving him?

The issue is that everyone seems convinced Mauer will eventually have to move from behind the plate. While even the most informed people may disagree just how long he can catch for, I don't think anybody realistically expects Mauer to catch through the 2018 season (when his contract runs out).

If Mauer were to suffer another knee injury next season, while still catching, he'd also have no experience at third base. What worries me is that the Twins will keep Mauer at catcher for the remainder of this season, and then have to move him sometime next season after an injury. If they keep Mauer at catcher and he does indeed get hurt, the team is much more likely to keep him at first base and designated hitter than try to teach him a more valuable position.

For example, let's look at last season's numbers by position, in the AL:
C: .238/.305/.391 (.696 OPS)
1B: .271/.340/.452 (.792 OPS)
2B: .263/.321/.400 (.721 OPS)
SS:  .266/.321/.387 (.708 OPS)
3B: .247/.316/.394 (.709 OPS)
LF: .251/.311/.393 (.704 OPS)
CF: .259/.317/.410 (.727 OPS)
RF: .267/.337/.431 (.768 OPS)
DH: .266/.341/.430 (.770 OPS)

So, as I mentioned earlier, 1B and DH were indeed the two highest OPS' by position. That's to be expected because those positions have low defensive value (1B) or no defensive value (DH) so the player is expected to contribute more with his bat.

If Mauer is moved to strictly 1B/DH full-time, his $23,000,000 a year contract is even more of a burden for a mid-market team.* If Mauer were to simply match his current stat line for the remainder of his contract (.286/.406/.387), he'd be above the league average OPS from 2011 at every position. Of course, because 1B and DH-types are generally easier to find than any other position, the Twins would be wise to use their $23,000,000 player at a position that has been an Achilles heel for the team since 2003, third base.

*Following the opening of Target Field, many fans incorrectly assumed the Twins would now be able to spend considerably more money. However, as great as a new stadium is, the real revenue comes from media contracts. The Twins local TV deal is something like $30 or $40MM a year. That's not a bad number by any means, but teams like the Yankees (close to $400MM) and the Angels (close to $150MM) make so much more per year that the Twins will simply always be a mid-market team, fancy new stadium or not.

Mauer seems to be athletic enough to make the move, although it is worth noting that his move to third base wouldn't be guaranteed to work. There's always a chance he'd be so bad at third that they couldn't justify playing him there, but the general sense among those close to the Twins is that Mauer would have no problem making the switch.

As you see in 2011, the average first baseman was more than 10% better offensively than third baseman, and DH's weren't much worse than first baseman. The team will give themselves a better opportunity to win into the future if they realize Mauer is much more valuable at a position that is not first base or designated hitter. The Twins have been unable to find even a league average third baseman in almost a decade, and with Mauer's contract basically unmovable for it's entirety, they might as well move him this season and let him deal with his growing pains defensively in a rebuilding season.

So, if the team were to move Mauer to third, who becomes the long-term catcher? Obviously, it would have been ideal if the team still had Wilson Ramos (torn ACL or not) but since they foolishly traded him for Matt Craps (I think I spelled that right) they need a new long-term catcher.

Remember, though, that Mauer wasn't likely the Twins long-term plan at catcher either, so by moving Mauer to third they aren't really creating a hole in the future. All they'd be doing is solidifying a different position of need while they try to find a catcher of the future over the next season or two.

The easiest solution would be to draft the best catcher in the draft, Mike Zunino, who's a draft eligible junior from Florida. He's considered a future franchise backstop, and in a draft that doesn't really have a clear cut top tier, taking a highly productive college bat with lots of upside makes plenty of sense. Zunino could potentially see the bigs as soon as mid-2013 if he develops quickly, but since the Twins have generally been conservative with their prospects, I'd say a 2014 debut would be more likely.

The team is lacking high-impact offensive players that are close to major league ready, and Zunino certainly wouldn't be a reach at #2 overall anyways. It's not a necessity to have an elite catcher, but by having one that is elite it can mask deficiencies elsewhere. If your catcher is 25% better than the average catcher, you could theoretically have a few slightly below average players and still finish above .500.

The Twins have never been accused of being a forward-thinking organization, but in a rebuilding season it's time to look toward the future. Move Mauer to third base, permanently, and effective immediately. Besides, it'd give the Twins a reason to let Drew Butera continue to sit on the roster despite being the worst offensive major leaguer in almost 100 years.