by Twins Geek
The following is in this month's issue of GameDay, the independent program sold outside of the Metrodome.
What’s striking is the confidence.
Sure, there’s the patience. And the quick wrists. Everyone talks about the sweet swing, as if most of us could judge such a thing. But we know confidence. You could plunk some tribal pygmy from the Amazon in the front row of the Metrodome and he’d watch one at-bat and tell you that this kid was special compared to the others.
The quiet confidence. Especially in one so young. It lifts us up. At least, until - in typical Minnesotan self-deprecating fashion - we wonder how much longer we’ll get to enjoy it.
Welcome to the modern business of baseball, where players aren’t glossy trading cards – they’re contracts. Where small market teams need to evaluate the long-term future of a player before they’ve really been tested. And where the fairy tale about a kid playing for his hometown team may not end in “happily ever after”.
It seems like we just met Joe Mauer. Nevertheless, due to the economics of the game, the sports market that Mauer and his team share, and one crummy knee injury, an important opportunity has already passed. And Mauer’s economic value to a team that counts its pennies is decreasing fast.
Mauer’s knee injury in 2004 robbed the Twins of more than just his bat in the lineup. It robbed them of one-third of Mauer’s “serf” years. For roughly the first three years of a major league player’s career, their team can pay him whatever they want (above a minimum salary requirement.) If the player doesn’t accept what the team offers, the player has two choices – play for less or don’t play baseball.
This is when a team recoups the investment it makes in its farm system. It’s completely speculative what Mauer might have made if he could have been a free agent just prior to his rookie year, but a multi-year, guaranteed contract that exceeded $5 million is nearly certain. It might have exceeded $10 million. Instead, the Twins paid him $300,000.
Of course, that year Mauer only had 107 at-bats because of one of the worst possible knee injuries. Oh, it wasn’t “worst possible” in terms of severity – Jason Kubel has that award sewn (stitched?) up. It was “worst possible” in that it was difficult to diagnose, and difficult to judge its progress. Perhaps that’s the reason that the Twins didn’t put him on the 60 day disabled list, which would have delayed his service time. Instead, he gained a year toward the three years of service he needs to get to arbitration.
Starting next year, Mauer will be eligible for arbitration for the next three years. This means that the Twins (if they want to retain him) must pay him a salary that is comparable to what a similar major leaguer makes. Finding a “similar major leaguer” can be tricky, but there are a couple of young players whose salaries could provide a baseline.
Victor Martinez, the talented young catcher for the Cleveland Indians, is a very comparable player who already has a contract. Martinez will make $3 million in his fourth year of service time (which like Mauer, would be in 2007), $4.25 million in his fifth year, and $5.7 million in his sixth year. Anything near that would be the best possible scenario for the Twins. Martinez is getting paid quite a bit below the “superstar” strata for the next three years.
Unfortunately for the Twins, Martinez signed that deal over a year ago, and some more recent deals by young studs are making that salary structure obsolete. Mark Texeira, who was drafted just a couple picks behind Mauer, signed a deal with Texas this offseason that pays him $6.4 million this year, his fourth service year. He’ll make $9 million in his fifth year. He’ll make more than that in his sixth year before he starts making really big money as a free agent.
Chairman Mauer looks like he’s in line for nearly a $3-4 million raise next year, and at least a couple million dollars raise per year after that. Pretty soon, he won’t be the bargain upon which a small market team needs to rely. Time to sign him up to a long-term deal, right?
A missed opportunity
Um, maybe, but don’t expect a big bargain, because that opportunity passed, if it was ever there. The last chance for a major league team to get a big markdown is the offseason following the player’s second full year. At that point, the player has toiled for two years in the majors, and will need to play solidly (and stay healthy) for one more year before they get that first million-dollar contract and gain a lifetime of financial security. For the Twins and for Mauer, that was last offseason.
That didn’t happen, though you can be relatively sure that it wasn’t for lack of interest by the Twins. They’ve recently sought and signed similar deals with Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon and Carlos Silva. It’s doubtful they just overlooked inking a similar deal with the face of their franchise for the rest of the decade.
It’s far more likely that there just wasn’t interest on Mauer’s side. After all, as the first overall pick in the draft, he’s not in the same situation as most ballplayers. His signing bonus was $5.15 million, which he secured by leveraging his football scholarship to Florida State. Neither Mauer nor his agent, the renowned Ron Shapiro, has demonstrated a lack of solid negotiating skills. That doesn’t mean a long term deal can’t happen. It just means it won’t be cheap.
It Is What It Is
The good news is that the Twins have a great young player who should only improve. He’s a fantastic bargain for this year, and a pretty solid bargain for next year. They also don’t need to sign a multi-year guaranteed contract. Since Mauer can’t become a free agent until after his sixth season, the Twins essentially have a four-year contract with him that contains an escalating pay scale that they can renew annually.
The bad news is that in 2008, Mauer’s salary is going to affect the level of players with which the Twins can surround him. Two years after that, he can go to the highest bidder, and there isn’t a lot the Twins are going to be able to do about it other than throw a lot of money his way.
The same dichotomy applies to Twins fans. The good news is they get to watch greatness. The bad news is that every step their favorite player takes forward is likely another step towards the door. So, enjoy it while you can. So good. So confident. So young. So rare.