Monday, February 12, 2007

Twins Peculiarly Cautious in Joe Mauer's Signing

While other superstars such as Houston's Carlos Lee, Philadelphia's Chase Utley or Toronto's Vernon Wells have been inked to long-term deals, Minnesota remains peculiarly cautious in refusing to commit to young Joe Mauer beyond 2010. The question is why?

The decision fits a familiar pattern at the tight-fisted Twins front office, which previously let walk such fan favorites as Chuck Knoblauch, David Ortiz, Corey Koskie, A.J. Pierzynski, Jacques Jones and Eddie Guadardo rather than commit limited funds for an uncertain future.

GM Terry Ryan chalks it up not so much to caution as a need for what he calls "flexibility," reasoning that volatile circumstances could dramatically alter value perameters in years to come. Sometimes, as in the case of Koskie and Guadardo, his reserve has paid off. Other times, as with Ortiz, it has blown up in his face.

In Mauer's case, Ryan's hesitance becomes especially puzzling, with the team balking at spending more than $33 million to hold onto the 2006 American League batting champ for any more than a mere four years. This means that the young catcher becomes eligible for a huge payday at 27, and very likely will depart for greener pastures, even though more than any other player -- even Johan Santana or Torii Hunter -- Mauer represents the face of the franchise.

Remember, Mauer is the kid who came out of Cretin-Durham Hall, the Catholic school in St. Paul that produced Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor, and former Blue Jays prospect and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Wenke. Simply put, as a Cretin-Derham alumnus, Mauer's provincial recognition is immeasurable, as are the fan interests, endorsements and ticket sales he generates.

So why not sign Mauer to a longer deal, say six, seven, even eight years with options, as has been seen elsewhere. Why not let Mauer become the next Cal Ripken or Craig Biggio, finish his career in Minnesota? With so much at stake can it be that Ryan's motivation can be summed up as pure , small-market prudence, or are other more canny evaluations at work?

Ryan, a former scouting director and shrewd judge of talent, is no fool. One must keep in mind that Mauer missed 127 games after violently tearing the cartilage in his left knee in 2004. While successful surgery has resurrected Mauer's career, the unfortunate inevitablity is that anyone sustaining an invasive medical procedure such as Mauer's meniscectomy will sooner or later suffer progressive, degenerative, post-traumatic arthritis, especially a catcher. This is a condition that someday may force Barry Bonds, for instance, to undergo knee replacement.

Will Mauer yet have a long and successful career. In all probability yes, or reasonably so. But don't be surprised if that wealthy team that pays for productivity at catcher when Mauer is 27 winds up unexpectedly buying a first baseman, designated hitter or trainer's room haunt before the contract matures. Of this, Ryan may be only too aware.