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Should the Twins Move Mauer from Behind the Plate?

April 18, 2011

Late this past week the Minnesota Twins were forced to place their starting catcher, Joe Mauer, on the 15-day disabled list. Mauer injured his left knee late in the 2010 season, resulting in offseason arthroscopic surgery. According to multiple reports he has yet to regain full muscle strength in the area, despite playing in limited action during Spring Training to avoid overworking his legs too fast while recovering, and will be shut down to deal with what the team is terming “leg weakness”. There seems to be internal optimism within the organization that he will only be out of action for two weeks. Twins’ GM Bill Smith expressed confidence that this move was the best for both sides with regards to the long term:

He’s got to build up his strength again to catch the long haul, and rather than try to push it through one game on, one game off – rather than push it through now, let’s shut him down, build that strength back up and get him ready for the long haul of the season.

Mauer, who turns 28 tomorrow, has long been one of the more durable players in the American League over the past few seasons, having appeared in 137+ games each of the past three seasons. In addition to the durability, Mauer has won three batting titles, an MVP Award, has become the Face of the Franchise in Minnesota, and is signed to a lucrative contract through the 2018 season. As such, any time that he does not appear in the lineup will prove to be worrisome to any Twins fan because he has become far too valuable to the organization’s future. Ultimately the trip to the DL has renewed an age old conversation about whether Mauer should move out from behind the plate in an effort to prolong the prime years of his career.

Numerous writers and bloggers on the Internet have expressed an opinion on the subject, and often those opinions vary. Some seem to stress that part of his value is directly tied to the position he plays – catcher. Catchers who can hit consistently for average like Mauer do not exist in baseball history. He also seems to work well with the Twins’ pitching staff. Ultimately a catcher with those qualities is more difficult to develop than an outfielder with those qualities could be. It’s be easier to find a replacement level outfielder than a replacement level catcher. Mauer the catcher would be more of a challenge to replace.

But then there are others who feel that the wear and tear of catching 137+ games a season will take on one’s body is ultimately enough reason to move Mauer to another position, most notably the outfield, because there will be less chance of injury, less of a chance his body breaks down preventing him from being the same offensive force later into his career. Mauer is certainly athletic enough to handle such a move but is it the best decision long term for the organization? And if it is determined that such a move is the right decision, when should such a move be made?

There is precedent for such a move to be made. After the 1991 season the Houston Astros took their young and talented catcher, then 24, and moved him from behind the plate to second base in an effort to avoid injury and take advantage of his athleticism. Craig Biggio would spend the next 11 years starting at second base for the Astros. He’d then spend two years in center field before returning to the infield for his final three seasons. He won four Gold Glove Awards at second base, was selected to seven All Star games, batted .281/.363/.433 over his 20-year career, and finished with 3,060 hits. Biggio should find his likeness enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in due time. The general belief is that moving him from behind the plate proved to prolong his career, benefiting him and the organization in the long term.

Mauer’s early offensive accomplishments stand above those of Biggio by a significant margin. In terms of bWAR, Biggio was worth 22.2 bWAR through his age 28 season. Mauer has been worth 38.7 bWAR through his age 27 season. It only seems natural to wonder what Mauer could ultimately accomplish if there were a way to limit the wear and tear on his body and prolong his productive career. Based on how the decision worked in Houston, couldn’t Minnesota see similar results? The answer, of course, is yes but there’s no guarantee.

The other factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is should the Twins move Mauer to another position, who replaces him behind the plate?

In the interim, backup Drew Butera will likely get the bulk of the playing time. The team recalled Steve Holm from Triple-A Rochester to fill Mauer’s roster spot. Combined the two have started just 107 games in their Major League careers. Butera has batted just .191/.228/.280 in 170 career plate appearances with 2 HR and 14 RBI. Holm has hit .265/.360/.398 in 114 career plate appearances with a home run and 6 RBI. Neither player has ever truly been considered a top prospect and presumably would not be seriously considered as the long term answer behind the plate. There are no significant catching prospects within the Twins organization.

There was, until last July’s trading deadline when the team sent Wilson Ramos to the Washington Nationals in exchange for Matt Capps. Capps, of course, has proven to be a valuable asset to the Twins as he filled in admirably at closer last season and has won the job back in 2011 with Joe Nathan’s early season struggles. It was a trade that has worked out well for the Twins thus far, presumably one they’d be willing to make again. 

Ramos, meanwhile, has impressed those within the Nationals organization enough that he’s been receiving the bulk of the playing time behind the plate in Washington. He is splitting time with another future Hall of Fame catcher, Ivan Rodriguez, but Ramos has positioned himself as their likely catcher of the future – allowing speculation to begin that the Nationals will trade from their depth at the position to fill other needs. The early success is good to see from Ramos and a sign of potential things to come down the road. But, it needs to be remembered that he only has 100 career at bats to his name and there is no certainty that he’ll continue to develop into a star catcher, let alone a Joe Mauer type. The possibility, of course, makes him a player that Minnesota would surely like to still have in house, particularly if they are going to seriously consider moving Mauer from behind the plate.

Should Minnesota decide that making a move is the right course to follow going forward, they will be forced to look outside the organization to find a suitable replacement for Mauer behind the plate. However, it would seem that now may not be the most opportune time to plan such a transition as the team’s contingencies just simply are not in place to handle such a move despite the fact that there will be a need for at least one outfielder come next offseason. Looking at MLBTR’s list of impending free agents after the 2011 season, there are few options that the Twins would likely pursue if they did choose to move Mauer to the outfield. As such, they’d likely need to either compromise – deal with the limited production and experience that Butera, Holm, and others bring to the table since Ramos is no longer an option – or make a trade to acquire a catcher from outside the organization – something that is never easy due to the limited number of young catchers available. Even with a perceived opening in their outfield to address next offseason, it may not be the best time to move Mauer unless the organization is willing to settle with creating a hole behind the plate.

Whatever the Twins and Mauer do going forward, maximizing the value received by one of the game’s best young players is vital to the team’s future. Perhaps moving him from behind the plate will prolong his already Hall of Fame worthy career but there are no guarantees. In the end Mauer could be most valuable if he is allowed to remain behind the plate. Time will tell, both what Mauer’s future holds and where he plays on the diamond.

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