February 4, 2004

The Perfect Catcher

The biggest story this off-season for the Twins, aside from the departures of several key players, is that Joe Mauer, at 20 years old, appears set to be their starting catcher in 2004. As I have said here several times already, I don't think Mauer is ready to be a great player yet and I wouldn't have been against the Twins giving him a little more time in the minors. That said, I have never seen the Twins organization, from Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire, down to the players, so thoroughly and strongly in support of a young player.

Minnesota GM Terry Ryan has never been one to hype a prospect and he is often very conservative when it comes to talking about the roles he expects young players to play. Yet from day one, it has been different with Mauer. Ryan talks about him as though he is truly a once-in-a-lifetime player and that talk has become even stronger this off-season.

The expectations for Mauer are going to be extremely high immediately. I've already seen it said several places that he is the top AL Rookie of the Year candidate. While I think Mauer will eventually become one of the best players in baseball, I remain cautiously optimistic about his rookie season. In my opinion, he will have had a successful rookie year if he can simply play good defense and hit a little bit. At the same time, I have to admit that the confidence Terry Ryan has shown in Mauer is gradually making me feel more confident about Mauer's chances of making a big impact in 2004. At this point, Mauer's rookie season is the thing I am most looking forward to seeing in 2004.

Baseball America has been unveiling their Top 10 Prospects for each team gradually over the off-season, and they posted the Twins Top 10 a few days ago. The #1 guy on the list is, of course, Joe Mauer. BA prospect expert Josh Boyd took questions about the Twins and their prospects in a recent chat, and Mauer was often the topic of choice.

As with Terry Ryan, everything Josh Boyd said about Mauer made this Twins fan smile. Here are a few of the things Boyd had to say about the sweet-swinging catcher from St. Paul, Minnesota...

On if Mauer has the ability to succeed, despite the failings of many other highly touted high school catching prospects:

"Mauer does it all and has the perfect makeup to continue excelling. One scout went so far to say Mauer will be the best defensive catcher in the AL by Opening Day."

On Mauer's throwing accuracy:

"It rates as an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He puts every throw on the bag."

On Mauer's overall defense:

"Mauer is a 70 now [on that same 20-80 scale] and projects as an 80, winning Gold Gloves year after year."

On if all the hype Mauer is receiving is undeserved, despite universally praised defense, because he hasn't shown the ability to hit for power yet:

"What? We're not talking about Ron Karkovice here. Fine, you don't want the Gold Glove defense, which I don't ever recall using as the trump card or an excuse for the fact he hasn't hit home runs yet, but you must be ignoring the fact that we are calling him a future batting champ who is going to control the strike zone like no other, drive the ball to the gaps for frequent doubles and hit 10-15 jacks early in his career. What else do you want?"

Anyone who has ever seen Mauer play or even just looked at his minor league stats knows the guy can flat-out hit. His batting averages at his four pro stops thus far? .400, .302, .335, .341. But the thing that has really caught my attention of late, whether it is Terry Ryan talking, Ron Gardenhire talking or someone like Josh Boyd talking, is how incredibly impressed everyone is with his defense.

The tendency when talking about a prospect like Mauer is to try to find major league players to compare him to. I've said here that I think his downside is something similar to Jason Kendall (a .304/.385/.422 career hitter) and that his upside could be Johnny Bench. But really, with a player like Mauer, finding similar players is very difficult.

I still like the Kendall comparison for his downside, but who wants to discuss downside? Certainly not a Twins fan. For upside, the Bench comparison is decent when you consider overall value, but it really doesn't work all that well. Joe Mauer is a .330 career minor league hitter whom almost everyone projects as someone who will compete for batting titles year after year. Meanwhile, Johnny Bench was a career .267 hitter who never finished among the top-10 in batting average and hit .300 exactly one time in 17 seasons.

In that same Baseball America chat, someone asked Josh Boyd if he thought Mauer was potentially "a left-handed Ivan Rodriguez." Boyd responds by saying, "That might not be far off."

Like the Bench comparison, the Ivan Rodriguez comparison works in regard to Mauer's defense. But the offense? Well, unlike Bench, Pudge Rodriguez has always had good batting averages - .304 career, including .290+ in 10 consecutive seasons and counting. Pudge has also shown the power that many project Mauer to eventually have, smacking 50+ extra-base hits in each of the last eight seasons.

So why doesn't the "left-handed Ivan Rodriguez" comparison fit Mauer perfectly? Because Rodriguez almost never walks. In fact, he is one of the biggest free swingers in baseball history. Prior to last season, when he walked 55 times, Rodriguez had never walked as many as even 40 times in a year. Mauer, on the other hand, has tremendous plate discipline and projects as someone who will walk a ton in his prime.

To find a perfect comparison for Joe Mauer's upside, you need to find a Gold Glove catcher who competes for batting titles every year, possesses impressive power and controls the strike zone incredibly well. In other words, you need to find the perfect catcher.

Basically, the things that make it so hard to find a good comp for Mauer are the same things that have everyone so incredibly excited about his potential. I mean really, what fan in their right mind wouldn't get excited about a left-handed Ivan Rodriguez with plate discipline, or Johnny Bench with much better batting averages? I'm drooling on my keyboard just thinking about it.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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