March 22, 2010

Twins Keep Mauer Through 2018 With $184 Million Deal

Months of speculation, assumptions, rumors, false reports, and anxiety finally came to an end yesterday afternoon when the Twins immediately overshadowed news of Joe Nathan officially opting for Tommy John surgery by signing Joe Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract extension that includes full no-trade protection and will keep the reigning AL MVP in Minnesota through his age-35 season in 2018.

Target Field was built to give Minnesotans the pleasure of outdoor baseball after decades in the Metrodome, but also to increase revenue enough to support a competitive payroll capable of retaining star players nearing free agency. As a 27-year-old homegrown former No. 1 overall pick coming off an MVP season Mauer fits that bill as well as any player ever will, which is why the decision was a no-brainer for the Twins despite the incredible amount of risk involved.

A list of the largest contracts in MLB history shows that long-term deals exceeding $100 million tend to work out well for the team far less than most people seem to think. For every Albert Pujols or Manny Ramirez deal that proved favorable for the team there are several massive deals that proved unfavorable to varying degrees: Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano, Ken Griffey Jr., Kevin Brown, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi.

Some of those were full-blown busts, some were a mixed bag where ultimately the player was paid significantly more than he was worth, and some simply saw the team overpay for a good player, as the "bad" pretty clearly outnumber the "good" even though in nearly every case the team and its fans were thrilled at the time of the signing. In other words, if given a chance to go back in time more often than not teams would opt against handing out a $100 million deal.

None of which means the Twins will regret this deal, just that committing that much up-front money over that many guaranteed years to even the very best players leaves all kinds of room for things to go wrong. Mauer is both younger and better than most of the guys to crack $100 million, but while those are key distinctions they're also offset somewhat by the fact that he plays a notoriously taxing position and has already experienced several major injuries.

All of which is mostly just a long way of saying $184 million is an awful lot of money, no matter the circumstances. However, in this case the player isn't merely great, he's truly elite, right in the middle of his prime, and clearly on an inner-circle Hall of Fame path. In five full seasons as a big leaguer Mauer has won one MVP and had a compelling case for two others while never playing at less than an All-Star level.

According to Fan Graphs' player valuation system he was worth an average of $22 million over that five-year span, including $26 million in 2008 and $37 million last season, so based on his established track record of performance $23 million per year seems about right. That figure is also in line with the most recent $100 million-plus contract given to a hitter, which is the nearly identical eight-year, $180 million deal Mark Teixeira signed with the Yankees last offseason.

Teixeira signed that contract as a 29-year-old first baseman and .290/.378/.541 career hitter with an adjusted OPS+ of 134. Mauer is a 27-year-old catcher and .327/.408/.483 career hitter with an adjusted OPS+ of 136. Mauer is two years younger with superior defensive value and every bit as strong offensively even before factoring in the huge hitting disparity between first basemen and catchers (showing his value even if a position change is needed down the line).

Now, obviously it's a lot easier and less risky for the Yankees to throw around $180 million and there's actually a legitimate argument to be made for not committing that much money to any player, but in terms of his established level of performance and the going rate for elite hitters Mauer's deal is right around fair market value and perhaps even represents a bit of a discount if there can be such a thing at $184 million.

Beyond that, for any talk of Mauer's contract being so big that it could hinder the Twins' ability to maintain a quality roster around him it's important to note that their payroll has been in the $70 million range in recent years. Moving to Target Field has allowed them to push the payroll to around $100 million for 2010 and presumably the near future, in which case the $23 million devoted to Mauer will still leave more money to spend than they had in any previous season.

History says there's a high likelihood of the Twins living to regret Mauer's deal, but that would be true at $124 million or $184 million because once you get into that stratosphere remaining healthy and similarly productive is a must for the pact to work out. Whether that's a sound risk is certainly debatable, particularly for the Twins, but if anyone is worth their taking on the risks associated with a $184 million contract Mauer would seem to be the guy on and off the field.

If nothing else, the folks in Cooperstown can now start engraving a Twins hat on his plaque.

March 21, 2010

Breaking News: Mauer Agrees To Eight-Year Deal

An official announcement is expected tonight, but various sources report that Joe Mauer and the Twins have agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract extension that includes a full no-trade clause. The deal will keep Mauer in Minnesota through 2018 and pays $23 million per season while being nearly identical to the eight-year, $180 million pact Mark Teixeira signed with the Yankees last offseason.

I'll have much more later ...

March 18, 2010

“Look away, I’m hideous”

This is how I feel right now:

To make a long and boring story marginally shorter and less boring, Blogger has recently made some big changes that forced me to alter the way this blog is published and in the process of making that switch earlier this week everything basically fell apart. Suddenly all the pictures ceased displaying, none of the links to old entries worked, and I saw my blogging life flash before my eyes. Rather than attempt to patch things back together, I got fed up and decided to ditch Blogger after seven years and switch to WordPress.

I've since learned that this is a fairly huge undertaking, particularly when it wasn't even planned, so you'll notice that things look slightly different and quite a few aspects of the blog are out of whack. Hopefully by Monday things will be mostly back to normal, but in the meantime I apologize for the mess and also for the lack of new content.

In the long run WordPress should be a better experience for everyone involved, although as a control freak with some weird OCD-like tendencies for the appearance of this blog the whole process may forever haunt me. Thanks for being patient during the blog makeover and please feel free to leave comments or drop me an e-mail with suggestions for the overhaul or notes about anything that just seems "off."

March 15, 2010

AG.com NCAA Tournament Pool

I created an NCAA basketball tournament "office" pool for AG.com readers, which you can sign up for by clicking here or going to www.madness.nbcsports.com and entering in the following information:

Pool ID: 2884
Password: Mila

Once you're done here, check out my NBCSports.com blog and Twitter updates.

March 14, 2010

Twins Sign Span To Long-Term Deal


All is quiet on the Joe Mauer front since false reports from Mark Rosen and Dan Cole claiming that an extension had been agreed upon, but that hasn't stopped the Twins from handing out other long-term deals. Last week Nick Blackburn inked a four-year, $14 million contract with an $8 million team option for 2014 and over the weekend Denard Span agreed to a five-year, $16.5 million deal with a $9 million team option or $500,000 buyout for 2015.

For both Blackburn and Span the Twins basically pre-paid for their remaining team-controlled seasons while securing a team option for their first season of free agency, with the only real difference being that Blackburn has accumulated one more year of big-league service time than Span and thus would have been eligible to hit the open market one year sooner. In other words, only the addition of a 2014 option for Blackburn and a 2015 option for Span alter how long the Twins would have been able to keep them.

Blackburn's contract struck me as an unnecessary risk without much upside, as they already controlled him through 2014 anyway and his skill set makes decline more likely than a breakout during the life of the deal. Because of that, committing $14 million up front when the Twins could have just taken things year-to-year with him is a questionable tradeoff in exchange for a bit of cost certainty and an $8 million team option on a 32-year-old Blackburn for 2014.

Span is a different story even through the contracts are nearly identical, because he's currently a clearly more valuable player than Blackburn despite being two years younger and also projects as more likely to maintain his performance long term. Not only is Span at $16.5 million for 2010-2014 more likely to be a bargain than Blackburn at $14 million for 2010-2013, there's a much higher chance that the Twins will actually want to retain Span for $9 million in 2015 compared to Blackburn for $8 million in 2014.

Here are the contract breakdowns, with "MIN" standing for minimum-salaried, pre-arbitration seasons, "ARB" representing arbitration-eligible seasons, and "FA" equaling free agency (numbers in millions):

             MIN2    MIN3    ARB1    ARB2    ARB3    FA1
Blackburn            0.75    3.00    4.75    5.50    8.00    option
Span         0.75    1.00    3.00    4.75    6.50    9.00    option/0.50 buyout

All of which isn't to say that Span's contract is a no-brainer for the Twins, because as someone whose big-league career consists of just 238 games in less than two full seasons and has been dramatically superior to his underwhelming minor-league track record there's some risk there too. He's gone from hitting .287/.357/.358 in the minors to .305/.390/.422 in the majors, upping his walks by 25 percent and showing 60 percent more power with 10 percent fewer strikeouts to emerge as an ideal leadoff man.

However, he's better and younger than Blackburn with less likelihood of a decline and far more upside, making him a much more viable and impactful long-term building block. And even my once-prominent (and warranted) skepticism of Span being the real deal has all but vanished during the past two years, so while the risk of up-front money outweighed the reward of cost certainty and delayed free agency for Blackburn taking the same plunge with Span was a lot more worthwhile. Now, about this Mauer guy ...


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