The negotiations parried back and forth for weeks in early 2010, encompassing virtually every detail of Joe Mauer’s career. His lionization in his hometown. His status as an All-Star, and his allure to high-payroll contenders. His burgeoning power, Gold Glove defense and injury history.
Every factor that the Twins and Mauer’s representatives could think of was discussed, projected and appraised before an agreement was reached. Every factor but one.
“I don’t think there was ever any expectation on either side,” Mauer’s agent, Ron Shapiro, said, “that Joe would be anything but a catcher.”
It was simple supply and demand: Catchers who can hit are scarce. Batting champions who can throw out baserunners and handle a pitching staff, they’re unicorns. Joe Mauer wasn’t the best of his class, he was the only member, a singular talent that Shapiro believed could be worth $30 million a year on the open market.
At $184 million over eight years, the terms the two sides finally agreed upon, the Twins were purchasing, practically into perpetuity, an asset that no other team possessed.
An asset that lasted under that contract, as it turned out, for only 192 games.
“Joe was the best catcher in the game. Of course you’d hope he would be able to stay back there his entire career,” said General Manager Terry Ryan, who was an adviser to former GM Bill Smith during Mauer’s negotiations. “But things happen that you can’t anticipate. So you adapt.”
A concussion is what happened. A full-time move to first base that Mauer had a difficult time embracing is how the Twins will adapt, beginning next week in Fort Myers. And the truth is, the team is better prepared for the transition than it might seem, because Mauer hasn’t been healthy enough to be the Twins’ regular catcher for years.
“You’d like to have your catcher catch about 130 games a year, the top-of-the-line guys like the Yadier Molinas of the world,” Ryan said, referring to the Cardinals’ All-Star catcher, who has started at least 128 games behind the plate for five consecutive years. “You can’t ask for more because of the demands of the position — that’s the price you pay for catching. But 130-135 [games], that’s about right.”
It’s also a level that Mauer reached only once in his 10-year career as a catcher, back in 2008; in fact, since his debut as a 20-year-old on April 5, 2004, Mauer, 30, has started only 885 games behind the plate, or just 54.6 percent of the Twins’ 1,622 regular-season games in that time. And since his contract extension went into effect in 2011, a variety of injuries limited Mauer to a mere 192 starts at catcher, or 39.5 percent of the schedule.
Knee surgery, back pain and the ill-described “bilateral leg weakness” put him on the disabled list for at least a month in five different seasons, and last August’s 90-mph blow to the head, a foul ball that jarred his catcher’s mask and triggered nearly three months of queasy symptoms, was the worst yet.
“I can’t remember any year when I’ve had so many foul tips, especially taking them off the head,” he said in May, three months before another one ended his season. “I’ve probably taken 12-15 balls off my head already this year. You don’t want to mess around with [your head], especially with concussions.”
Had hoped to catch again
Yet even when he remained sensitive to light and noise a month after the season, even when he had to leave the room to clear his head when his 6-month-old twin daughters cried, Mauer was reluctant to give up the position he has played since junior high.
“I think I kept visiting different doctors,” he said, “hoping that somebody would tell me that it was OK to get back behind there.”
Instead, the general manager told him it wasn’t. Ryan met with Twins doctors shortly after the season, and after hearing their prognosis — that Mauer, having suffered a major concussion, was at greater risk of a reoccurrence, and potentially long-term consequences — decided that the time had come for the team’s most valuable property to be moved out of harm’s way. Even if it meant that Mauer’s value, the likelihood that he would be worth the $115 million the Twins still owe him, would decline severely by moving him from the most difficult defensive position on the diamond to the easiest.
“Money isn’t a factor. It doesn’t matter if it’s Joe or anyone else — you’ve got to weigh the risk to someone’s life,” Ryan said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Ryan consulted with Shapiro and met with Mauer and his wife, Maddie, urging him to give up catching.