After this season, Joe Mauer will be a free agent. Unless a dramatic change occurs, he will be able to sign a multi-year contract somewhere in the $25 million per year range. If a full scale bidding war erupts between say the Red Sox and the Yankees, it is not hard to imagine Mauer getting at least an eight year $200 million contract, probably more. If the Twins don’t think they can sign him, they are better off trading him during the season than losing him to free agency after the season. This is the basic logic underlying Joe Mauer’s future with the Twins, but there are other questions as well.
First, the question that should be on the minds of all Twins fans is whether or not Mauer can be persuaded to take a hometown discount. This is a particularly acute issue for Mauer who has not only spent his entire career in the Twins organization, but grew up in Minnesota as well. For both sides this is more than just a financial equation. The Twins may need Mauer to take a hometown discount, but they also need to make a serious offer. It is not realistic or fair to expect Mauer to agree to $18 million a year for five years, or something like that, but $23 million a year for six to eight years, while still a discount is not insulting or unreasonable.
For Mauer, it is not just a question of staying in his hometown, because for $200 million or so he could learn to love any number of cities. It is also a question of the narrative Mauer wants to set for his career. Mauer is not your garden variety reigning MVP. He is a great player who has the potential to be a great player of historic dimensions, an inner circle Hall of Famer. Spending one’s entire career with one franchise lends an additional sheen to this type of player. If Mauer stays with the Twins he could be the greatest player in Twins history by the time he is forty. For a Minnesota native, that might be worth making a little bit less money over the course of a career which will be extremely lucrative no matter where he plays. If he ends up with the Yankee, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs or most other franchise he will never achieve that status. It is certainly understandable if Mauer decides that he wants a change, is tired of Minnesota, wants to make 10-15% more money and would like a better chance of playing on a World Series winner too, but the advantages of staying with the Twins should not be overlooked either.
The situation in which the Twins find themselves regarding Mauer is not new for Minnesota, but is still unfortunate. The inequality in baseball payroll is often misunderstood, used to gratuitously criticize the Yankees, and occasionally used by teams to excuse poor business, not just baseball, decision. Nonetheless, this seems like a special case. This is not just a case of a mid-sized market team being outbid for Jason Bay or some other star free agent. It is a case of a team being unable and perhaps unwilling to retain a player who is one of the very best in the game and has the potential to be a player of extraordinary significance to the team and whole state.
The serious argument for the Twins to trade Mauer is not that they cannot afford him, but that it may not be the best use of their resources. Committing roughly 25%, possibly more, to one player, even one as talented as Mauer severely limits options when assembling a team. Additionally if, for some unforeseen reason, Mauer’s skills erode more quickly than expected, the Twins will be stuck for many years paying for his contract. This is the exact type of mistake that mid-market teams cannot afford to make. While these arguments are legitimate, Mauer is not a high risk player with a history of injuries, fighting with managers or anything like that. In fact the opposite is true. To the extent there is something like a valuable off the field presence, Mauer is one.
Baseball, the Twins and Mauer find themselves at a unique disequilibrium. They all benefit from Mauer staying the Twins, but there is a strong possibility that Mauer will be wearing another uniform next year. Mauer benefits because he gets to keep playing in his hometown, while the Twins because they get the guaranteed services of one of the very best players in the game. Moreover, it is good for baseball if Mauer stays with the Twins. It demonstrates that mid-market teams can be competitive and retain their top players. It also helps baseball oppose the criticism that the game is simply about money. Lastly, it makes the games more fun for all fans if teams like the Twins can have and keep superstars too.
Mauer’s situation is unusual because of the hometown connection, but the question of what can be done about this is worth exploring. New owners could be asked to demonstrate a commitment and willingness to retain home grown stars who attain a certain, extremely high level of accomplishment. A fund, in turn, could be set up so that teams in middle sized and smaller markets could have 10% subsidy when trying to sign potentially departing stars. A system for identifying one franchise player per team and providing assistance to middle and small market teams seeking to retain their franchise player would be another way to do this. None of these ideas are easy or perfect, but it would make sense to begin thinking about them more seriously.