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Twins catcher Joe Mauer

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune file

Souhan: Twins can't breathe under Mauer's huge contract

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • May 30, 2012 - 7:24 AM

We are stuck together, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, 'til free agency or Armageddon do us part.

Joe Mauer is not going anywhere; neither is our intense focus on him.

Mauer is the franchise player on a fallen team, the financial albatross around the Twins' bowed necks. Given his no-trade clause, Mauer's contract will haunt through at least 2018, when he'll probably be a singles-hitting first baseman.

Tuesday night, he heard jeers at Target Field while going 0-for-5 in the Twins' 3-2 victory over the A's, even as he has displayed a renewed determination to stay on the field.

Mauer has played in 48 of the Twins' 49 games. He entered the game ranked fourth in the American League with a .412 on-base percentage. He is doing his job yet not earning his keep, and that's the best he's going to be able to do for the next six years.

At this point in his career, Mauer should be categorized as a good player who, by luck of timing and birthplace, fell into a ridiculous payday. He's Donald Trump, without the orange comb-over.

Mauer deserved criticism last year, when he sometimes would work out for four hours a day but refuse to play in a three-hour baseball game. Booing him this season is like booing your neighbor for winning the lottery; it might make you feel better, but your emotions are not based in logic.

Mauer circa 2012 is a quality hitter. He's elite when it comes to getting on base. He's a pretty good defensive catcher with an excellent arm. He's a fine baserunner and a smart player. He's the last guy who's going to embarrass himself or his franchise with a DUI or a ridiculous quote.

He's just not worth anything close to $23 million a year.

So you can boo him, or make peace with the necessity of his contract.

When Mauer signed his new contract, in the spring of 2010, he was a healthy, 26-year-old catcher who had just won the MVP award. He also had just won his third batting title, meaning he had three more than any American League catcher who ever wore shin guards. His career path pointed to Cooperstown, and the next big-league game in which he played would take place in an improbably picturesque ballpark built in his home state.

He had earned a large contract. The Twins gave him a deal that might have embarrassed The Babe.

They signed him to an eight-year, $184 million deal not because they thought he was worth that much, but because they had little choice. Had they not signed him, they would have either faced public backlash when they wanted their fans to be celebrating the opening of Target Field, or they would have been forced to trade what might have been, at that moment, the most popular player in franchise history.

So instead of judging Mauer as a $23-million-a-year franchise player, we should probably break down his contract this way:

The Twins are paying him about $13 million a year to play baseball. Ownership is paying $10 million a year in what should appear in the line-by-line audit as "Marketing."

Considering his résumé at the time, paying Mauer $13 million a year would have been reasonable. Mauer never again will hit like he did in 2009, when he produced 28 homers. Presuming good health, he eventually should return to the form he displayed in 2010, when he hit .327 with nine homers, 43 doubles and a .402 on-base percentage.

Entering Tuesday's game, Mauer was hitting .306 with a .422 on-base percentage and a .412 slugging percentage.

Entering Tuesday's games, the average big-league catcher was hitting .251 with a .318 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage.

What would make Mauer's contract even more palatable would be if the Pohlads accepted this view, and began spending that $10 million, or more, on free agents. Preferably, pitchers.

Mauer isn't letting the franchise down this year. The Pohlads shouldn't let his contract weigh down the franchise.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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