Commentary

How much longer can Joe Mauer catch?

With knee and leg issues, changing positions might eventually be best course of action

Originally Published: April 19, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

He's a man with an eight-year, $184 million contract. And if you're calculating along at home, trying to figure out what's left of Joe Mauer's historic deal with the Minnesota Twins, we can sum it up succinctly for you:

All eight years of it. …

Minus the past 2½ weeks.

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireJoe Mauer, 28, is in the first season of an eight-year, $184 million contract he signed before the start of the 2010 season.

So that's a lot of time. And that's a lot of paychecks. And that's 184 million extremely persuasive reasons the Twins have to make darned sure they get the most they can possibly get from every Minnesotan's favorite local sports hero.

Which means it's time to ask a delicate question that the folks in the Twins' hierarchy enjoy tackling about as much as they enjoy 117-inch snowfalls on Opening Day:

How long can Joe Mauer catch?

We don't ask that question today just because the best catcher in baseball is currently sentenced to the disabled list with an ailment described as "bilateral leg weakness."

And we don't ask it just because Mauer is still recuperating from his second knee surgery, or because he needed three injections of synthetic lubricant in his left knee this spring.

We ask it because baseball is a better sport when Mauer is out there chasing another batting title, as opposed to chasing another opinion from an orthopedic surgeon.

And we ask it because it's a question we've been thinking about since the day Mauer signed that contract -- the biggest by a catcher in baseball history, not to mention the biggest signed by any player in history who isn't playing on the left side of the Yankees' infield.

So, just a few weeks ago, before that term "bilateral leg weakness" came out of anyone's mouth, we sat in the office of Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and posed that very question.

It isn't exactly the manager's most beloved topic. But it's one he clearly has thought about -- and continues to think about.

"He's said that's what he wanted to do," Gardenhire said, "to go as a catcher through the length of the contract. So you know what? I'm kind of just playing it year by year, and you just see. If it looks like he has another one of those years where he misses some time because of his knees, then I think we start thinking about it -- at least thinking about it, talking about it and maybe start taking some balls at other places, and at least having a backup plan here if it gets to the point where we need it.

"But Joe's pretty content at catching. And he's also pretty insistent that he wants to catch the length of this contract. So we'll see whether he can or not. I don't have an answer for you. I just know that catchers take a beating. And he's had leg issues. So that is definitely something you really have to pay attention to."

Any time that question comes flying at Mauer himself, however, he blocks it as if he were smothering another splitter in the dirt. He loves to catch. He lives to catch. He plans to catch. So, uh, any more questions?

"I'm a catcher," he said, emphatically, this spring. "And that's what I want to do."

But what makes this dicey is this tricky little issue: Is what he wants to do the same as what he should do -- not only for the betterment of the Twins but for himself?

Obviously, if Mauer can catch and keep those line drives flying for the next eight years, there's no debate -- none -- about whether he's worth every dollar sign.

Among players with at least 1,500 plate appearances, there's only one current full-time catcher (Brian McCann) within 120 points of Mauer in career OPS (.885). And only McCann is within 40 points of him in career batting average (.326) or on-base percentage (.406), either.

But suppose Mauer moves to just about any other position? Then what?

"If he has a 1.000 OPS [as he did in his 2009 MVP season]," one AL executive said, "he'd still have great value no matter where he plays."

But that 1.000 OPS was a one-time phenomenon, and one Mauer seems unlikely to duplicate now that Target Field has entered his life. And even if he maintains that .885 OPS at virtually any other position, he no longer would be a guy who separates himself from the masses. For the record, two dozen active hitters have a higher career OPS than that. All but six of them are first basemen (nine), outfielders (four) or DHs (five).

So if Mauer is physically up to catching, case closed. But what are the odds he'll actually be up to it?

"He's a great player, and he's a special hitter," said one scout who covers the Twins. "But I don't see him being able to squat for another eight or nine years. I'll tell you that."

But Twins GM Bill Smith says it's too early to assume that.

"I grew up in New England, watching Carlton Fisk, who was a big catcher who had injuries," Smith said this spring. "He had knee injuries early in his career. And until Pudge Rodriguez came along, Carlton Fisk caught more games than anybody in history."

Hey, good point. Just 334 games into his big league career, Fisk suffered what was thought at the time to be a career-threatening knee injury. Turned out he was all done, all right -- a mere 19 years and 1,899 games caught later.

"There's too much that happens over the course of a career to look eight years down the road," Smith said of Mauer. "He's one of the best catchers in the game. He's one of the best hitters in the game. He's an All-Star. He's a franchise player. So, the manager and the coaches will figure out where he plays, when he plays."

But if Mauer is going to play someplace else, the manager and the coaches have an Advil attack waiting to happen, trying to solve that particular Rubik's Cube.

The Twins are set at first base as long as Justin Morneau is able to keep trotting out there. They're set at DH, at least for the rest of this year, as long as Jim Thome can keep on mashing. And Mauer has never played a professional game at any other position.

But it's amazing what brilliant ideas can bubble to the surface when it comes time to figure out how to keep a $184 million man on the field. So, Gardenhire is confident that when, or if, the time comes, the Twins will figure out a way to do more with this guy than make him the highest-paid pinch hitter of all time.

"My goodness gracious," the manager laughed. "You've got outfield spots. You're not going to be able to keep everybody together forever. So who knows? It's a place where you would make a hole, I know that, to keep his bat in the lineup."

At the moment, the Twins are more concerned with how their catcher will be feeling over the next eight days, not the next eight years. But, in the big picture, Mauer's future is inextricably tied to the Twins' future. So even if they have to blow up their entire roster one of these years to make sure they keep writing his name on the lineup card, there's a 100 percent chance they'll be able to locate the TNT.

"With Joe Mauer, we'd definitely make a hole somewhere," Gardenhire said, "and figure out how to go from there."

Ready to rumble

• Nothing aggravates people around the game more than the growing mindset, here in this Rumor Central-fixated world, that the first three months of the season are just some kind of pregame show for the trading deadline. So we don't blame the Indians for shaking their heads over the buzzing that it's great that Grady Sizemore got healthy -- so they can trade him in July.

"I understand why people have that perception," GM Chris Antonetti told Rumblings. "But if you look back at the deals we made in 2008 and 2009, we made them because we weren't competitive. If we had been the team we wanted to be in 2008, we wouldn't have traded CC [Sabathia]. … So this year, if we play up to our expectations, if we're a contending team, we'll be looking to acquire guys, not trade guys [like Sizemore] away. Our focus is, let's get back to winning and start bringing in guys at the deadline."

• Now that we've got that off our chest, though, it doesn't mean teams aren't already trying to anticipate players who might be available. One name we've heard connected with clubs like the Yankees is Houston's Brett Myers. But according to FanGraphs, there isn't a right-handed starter in the AL East whose fastball has averaged under 89 mph. And Myers' average velocity is down to 87.7 -- 3 mph under his career norm.

"If he's in the AL East, he's a fifth starter," one NL scout said of Myers. "I don't see him being a [difference-maker]. The only thing he'd have working for him, besides his curveball, is lack of familiarity with him over there."

• Clubs that have spoken to the Nationals report that Washington is actively looking for an upgrade in center field. But one scout says he doesn't understand why Rick Ankiel is patrolling center every day in the first place.

"How long are they going to live with Ankiel in center," the scout wondered, "when they've got Roger Bernadina [in Triple-A], who's better than him in every aspect of the game? For me, Ankiel would be a really good extra guy, and then you wouldn't have to overexpose him or Michael Morse."

But the Nationals have long been split over whether Bernadina is a true center fielder. And his defensive stats reflect that. His Ultimate Zone Rating Per 150 games as a big league center fielder is minus-14.0. But his UZR/150 in left field is plus-11.8.

Derek Jeter
Jeter

• Is it fair for the Yankees and their fans to be evaluating Derek Jeter by comparing him to his old self? That's a fascinating issue. And it was raised recently by a long-time scout who doesn't think the Yankees have a realistic view of what Jeter ought to be, two months from his 37th birthday, in large part because he was so adamant this winter about not taking a major pay cut.

"When you have an aging star, you can't expect him to still be a star," the scout said. "I'll give you a good example. In Colorado, they've lowered their expectations of Todd Helton. So they're getting something from him, and they're happy with what they get. So in Jeter's case, when you have a [Robinson] Cano, a [Mark] Teixeira and an A-Rod in your lineup, and you've got guys around them like [Curtis] Granderson and [Nick] Swisher, you don't expect Jeter to be the Jeter of 15 years ago. He's not that guy anymore."

• Once upon a time, after the 2004 Diamondbacks traded away virtually all their veteran players and lost 111 games, GM Joe Garagiola Jr. quipped: "We lacked adult supervision." His point was that nothing is more underrated on a young team than veteran leadership. And that's a message not lost on the Indians. They may not have signed Carl Crawford. But they've gotten tremendous leadership from the three veteran free agents -- Orlando Cabrera, Chad Durbin and Adam Everett -- they added to the youngest roster in the league.

Cabrera's impact on Asdrubal Cabrera has been well-documented. But he's also a guy who "expects to win and prepares to win," Antonetti said. Durbin is a "very intelligent guy" who has "had a great influence on the other guys in the bullpen." And Everett is a "fountain of knowledge about the game." So while those moves barely registered on anyone's radar last winter, they've made an impact on this team in ways most of us never considered.

• The Rays, minus Manny Ramirez, have won seven of their last 10 games. And that's about as much of a coincidence as the sun happening to rise in the east every morning. "They're unequivocally better," said one scout. "It's like a weight lifted off their shoulders, not knowing what to expect from that guy. And now they line up better. [Johnny] Damon is better suited to DH. And Sam Fuld tightens up that outfield."

• Last year, Charlie Morton went 2-12 for the Pirates with a 7.57 ERA (third-highest in the last 75 years by a pitcher who made that many starts). But this year, he's a whole different pitcher (2-0, 1.64 ERA in his first three starts). We'll tell you more about that turnaround shortly in our Five Astounding Facts. But what few people know is that the guy who deserves the credit, besides Morton, is minor league pitching coordinator Jim Benedict. He studied tape of Morton back to high school and recommended this spring that he drop down into a lower, Roy Halladay-type arm slot. Morton rediscovered his sinker and better command. And the rest is history.

Chris Coghlan
Coghlan

• One of the big questions about the Marlins this year was whether Chris Coghlan could handle center field. Well, check those "Web Gems" standings. He may not be a guy you'd match up against Michael Bourn in a 100-meter sprint. But Coghlan is rampaging around center field like a guy who thinks there's no fly ball hit that he can't catch. So he's sitting at No. 2 on the "Baseball Tonight Web Gems leaderboard." And he's fourth in the NL in UZR.

"My mindset," Coghlan told Rumblings, "is, if a ball is hit out there, I'm going to get to it -- and I'm going to take whatever route I need to take to get to it."

He has the grass stains and fence imprints to prove it, too. But as much fun as it's been to watch, his manager, Edwin Rodriguez, would rather he not risk a trip to the intensive-care ward on every play.

"I talked to him about that," Rodriguez said. "When we were in Houston, he dove for a ball, and it was about 25 feet away from him. I said, 'What are you doing? We need you for a full season.'

"I understand it," the manager went on, "because at first, he was thinking, 'If I don't get to that ball, they're going to say every other center fielder would get it.' And that's why he was diving for every ball. But now that he's showed us he can handle the position, he can be more smart about it. [ Rodriguez laughs.] I hope."

Five astounding facts of the day

1) Bobby Bonilla, Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, Johan Santana and Jason Bay aren't currently playing for the Mets. But as loyal reader David Hallstrom observed, that isn't stopping the Mets from paying them a combined $57.6 million this year. Which is more than the Royals, Rays, Padres, Pirates, Indians and Diamondbacks are paying the guys who are playing for them.

2) In the 2003 postseason, Josh Beckett had back-to-back starts (against the Cubs and Yankees) in which he gave up two hits and then three hits, while striking out nine-plus in each. But he'd never had back-to-back starts like that in any of his 249 regular-season starts -- until last week, when he did it against the Yankees and Blue Jays.

3) Still can't believe Edinson Volquez has kicked off two starts already by serving up home runs to the first two hitters of the game. According to the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR long-ball historian David Vincent, no pitcher in history had ever done that twice in three weeks. And only one (Chad Durbin) had ever done it twice in the same season.

4) The Tigers and A's played one of the strangest games of modern times Friday. It was 1-0 after eight innings -- whereupon the teams combined to score 11 runs in the next two innings. Final: Tigers 8, A's 4. So when was the last time any two teams arrived in the ninth with the score 1-0 and then scored more than 10 runs? How about Aug. 15, 1962, according to the Elias Sports Bureau -- in a game that went from White Sox 1, Indians 0 to White Sox 10, Indians 2.

5) And now that Charlie Morton update: Last starting pitcher to find himself with a 2-0 record one season after going 2-12 or worse? Elias reports that would be Matt Keough, who went 2-17 for the 1979 A's, then won his first three starts in 1980 on the way to 16 wins. Who knew!

Tweets of the day

• From that legendary 19th-century iron man, @OldHossRadbourn, who continues tweeting despite the minor technicality that he's been dead for 114 years:

"Red Sox/Yankees games are so slow they should use Roman numerals to indicate the inning."

• From noted Yankees fan (and humorist) @BillyCrystal:

"The Red Sox are 2 and 9. I don't have a joke, I just like saying that."

• And finally, our go-to Tweet king, @Tony_Plush, gave us the impression his alter-ego, Nyjer Morgan, was having a rough time handling his absence from the Brewers' lineup this weekend in Washington:

"Plush stopped along the shores of the Potomac. He watched the water lap gently and whispered again and again: 'Why, Coach Roenicke? Why?'"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com