Position: C Height: 6-4 Weight: 230 Born: 4/19/83 Bats: Left Throws: Right
Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer is the talk of Florida this spring. He draws the loudest applause from the stands, at least in his home spring training park at Fort Myers. The local fans are familiar with him after his work in the first half last year for the Class A Fort Myers Miracle (.335 in 62 games). Virtually every prospect analyst considers him to be the best position-player prospect in the game. Down on the Farm is no exception. I gave Mauer a straight Grade A in my 2004 book, and rated him as the best overall prospect in baseball. Taken with the first pick in the 2001 draft, this product of St. Paul's Cretin-Durham high has fulfilled every expectation the Twins have had for him.
The first thing you notice if you watch Mauer play is his combination of size and athleticism. A former quarterback, he's a big guy, taller than almost all catchers, and one of the largest men on the team. Yet he moves on the field with easy grace, giving him an unusual blend of strength and flexibility. This is a great asset behind the plate, where he handles most catching chores with the aplomb of a 10-year veteran. He has a very strong and accurate arm, blocks pitches well, and frames the target easily for the pitcher. Twins pitchers are full of praise for his leadership skills and his defense is major league-ready now. Offensively, Mauer has a pure swing that produces hard line drives. He can pull the ball for power occasionally, but is more often content to line pitches into the gaps or go to the opposite field. His plate discipline is excellent, with a decent walk rate and a very low strikeout rate. He works the count well, and in some ways is already a more polished hitter than several Twins veterans. Mauer even runs well for a catcher, and is alert and active on the bases. His main weakness at this point is lack of home run power. He's certainly strong enough to hit 20 or more homers in a season, but his current style of hitting is more conducive to large numbers of doubles and a high batting average. Given a normal growth curve, his home run power should increase in time. Scouts praise his work ethic, intelligence, and drive to succeed. He already fits well into a major league clubhouse despite his youth.
Mauer has had no trouble with pro ball. He hits for average, draws some walks, doesn't strike out much, and has played well at a high level of competition at a young age. He already projects as a .280+ hitter at the major league level, very impressive for a player who doesn't turn 21 until April. Statheads are impressed with his numbers just as scouts are impressed with his physical tools and playing skills. He could be a threat for a batting title down the road.
So far, Mauer has had no serious injury problems. Catchers are vulnerable to various bumps and bruises, of course, and many young catchers fail to develop as expected at least in part because of nagging injuries. Mauer will have to prove he has the physical durability to catch every day while maintaining (and improving) his offense over time. Some skeptics have pointed out that the record of very tall catchers in major league baseball is not particularly impressive, as the strain of the position is harder on players who have great size. Due to his extraordinary athleticism, Mauer may be an exception. "Only time will tell" is the cliché, and it is also true.
What to expect
The Twins traded A.J. Pierzynski this winter because they felt that Mauer was ready to handle full-time major league duty. He's played very well this spring, and at this point he looks like a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. The same was said about Hank Blalock in the spring of 2002, and it took an extra year before he was fully comfortable in the majors. In the long run, his early struggles will not have an impact on Blalock's career, though it certainly irritated fantasy owners who invested large sums in him that spring, as well as Rangers fans who had invested emotional capital in Blalock doing well right off the mark. The same thing could very well happen to Joe Mauer in 2004.
On the other hand, most people think Mauer will be a big hit off the bat. He wasn't intimidated on the game I saw recently, working the count well and going 1-for-2 against Roy Halladay, who is certainly an excellent pitcher. Experienced Twins like Torii Hunter and Cristian Guzman flailed at pitches outside the strike zone, while Mauer worked himself ahead in the count. This approach has and will serve him well. At some point, perhaps soon, pitchers will realize that Mauer won't chase pitches out of the zone. They will start challenging him early in the count, perhaps busting him with fastballs inside. Mauer will have to adjust as the pitchers adjust to him, but there seems little reason to doubt that he will do so.
From looking at Mauer's numbers, and watching him on the field, I think we should be optimistic, but realistic. Long term, there are no doubts about his bat. Should we expect him to hit .300 or more in 2004? I think the chance that Mauer will hit .300 is better than the chance that he'll hit .200, but I don't think we'll see him on the batting title leader board, not just yet. My projection is that Mauer will hit between .270 and .280 this year, possibly getting off to a slow start at first but eventually adjusting. He won't have much home run power, but will be good for doubles and a fair number of walks. His defense will be stellar, and he'll earn some buzz for Rookie of the Year, but will finish second behind Oakland's Bobby Crosby.
In the long run, it all boils down to whether or not Mauer can avoid Young Catcher Stagnation Syndrome. The history of tall catchers isn't promising, but it is testament to Mauer's ability that so many are willing to look past that in his case. Balancing everything together, statistics, tools, skills, I can see no reason to think that Joe Mauer won't be a star. Watching his development should be a source of joy and interest for fans over the next decade.
John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, is also out, and can be ordered through on-line book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife Jeri, son Nicholas, and feline friends Toonces and Spot.