It’s almost time to let the real “Hot Stove Season” begin in earnest.
Barring some unforeseen blunder by the Baseball Writers Association of America, Joe Mauer will be crowned the 2009 American League Most Valuable Player on Monday afternoon.
When that announcement becomes official, the clock starts.
The clock will be counting down the remaining days of Joe Mauer’s relationship with the Minnesota Twins.
By the time pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training the clock very well may have reached zero—as it did for Johan Santana two years ago—or it may have restarted to the tune of six-years and $100+ million.
Mauer’s agent, Ron Shaprio, has no doubt avoided starting any real negotiations regarding an extension with Minnesota until after the MVP announcement, and for good reason.
It’s one thing to ask for $100+ million for a three-time batting champion and it’s a whole different business to ask for $100+ million for a three-time batting champion and reigning AL MVP.
If Shapiro had started negotiations before the announcement, he’d have been going into a gunfight with an empty chamber.
After Monday’s announcement, he’ll come out fully-loaded and guns a-blazing.
It should be noted, however, that Shapiro was the agent for both Cal Ripken and Kirby Puckett, both of whom were able to work out deals to stay with their original clubs.
Shapiro is the antithesis of Scott Boras, in the sense that although he’s looking for a big payday for his client, he’s not looking to loot and plunder the organization in the process.
Mauer, 27, is due $12.5 million next season and, despite saying he is unconcerned with being the highest-paid player in the game, he is due a hefty raise going forward.
In fact, to say he is due a “hefty raise” may be underscoring his overall value.
Mauer is just entering his prime, plays a premium position, and is undoubtedly one of the game’s best pure hitters.
In just five full-seasons in the big leagues, Mauer has been voted to three All-Star teams, won three batting titles, three Silver Sluggers, two Gold Gloves, and should win his first AL MVP Monday afternoon.
It would be pure naiveté to assume that Mauer isn’t at least thinking about the big money he could make if he played in Los Angeles, New York, or Boston.
Despite historically being one of baseball stingiest franchises, Minnesota figures to make an honest attempt to extend Mauer’s contract beyond 2010 and well into the next decade.
No one in the front-office has so much as batted an eyelash at rumblings of the first $100+ million contract in franchise history.
That fact notwithstanding, there is still a chance that, much like with Santana, the extension talks could crumble.
If that is the case, one has to wonder what Mauer’s trade value would be.
Obviously, Mauer would command far more than the package general manager Bill Smith received for Santana two years ago.
Any team dealing with the Twins may be reluctant to give up front-line talent, given that acquiring Mauer will also include a substantial monetary investment, but the fact of the matter remains the same as it was with Santana, it’s now or never.
You pony-up the prospects and trade for him, or you’ll never get your hands on him.
The mindset among those fans was that their clubs could just buy Santana and, in turn, keep their prospects too the following offseason. Santana, however, never hit free agency.
The Mets stepped in with an offer that was considerably less desirable than any the Yankees or Red Sox had reportedly offered, but it was the only offer left and the Twins took it.
Take heed now delusional fans of big market ballclubs, Joe Mauer will not hit free agency after next season.
His contract situation has an endgame with one of two possibilities.
A) The Twins will re-sign the hometown boy to the largest contract in franchise history and the fairy tale will come to a happy ending. Fans along the upper east coast will cry.
B) The Twins will trade Mauer to one of baseball’s big market clubs in exchange for a slew of top prospects and the big market club will promptly sign him to one of baseball’s richest contracts. Everyone in Minnesota will cry.
With those two options in mind, it’s time to take a look at the potential suitors that could arise for Mauer’s services if contract negotiations with the Twins fall through.
The Dark Horses
The Rangers are in serious financial distress, the club has more important needs in the rotation and outfield, and the franchise is already stocked with three solid young catchers in Taylor Teagarden, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Max Ramirez.
The Rangers don’t make a lot of sense, but the club also lacks a real breakout star. Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton are there, but neither player has proven they can stay healthy and consistently put up the numbers that Mauer can.
The Return: Logically, the Twins would ask for one of the Rangers top pitching prospects in Neftali Feliz or Derrek Holland and then a combination of one of the club’s catchers and a position prospect such as Julio Borbon, Justin Smoak, or Chris Davis.
The Result: The price would no doubt prove too steep for a club that is already suffering from financial struggles. The club seems to have learned a lesson in recent years about gutting the farm-system for quick fixes and would no doubt pass on Mauer.
The Rundown: The Cubs—depending on what kind of money the Ricketts family wants to spend—could be major players this winter, or they could sit back and roll with the in-house talent.
Chicago is still relatively close to Mauer’s St. Paul home and would seemingly be a good fit for the Midwestern grown catcher.
The club does, however, already have a former All-Star catcher in Geovany Soto on the roster and under club control at far cheaper rates for the foreseeable future.
The Return: Many of the top prospects including third baseman Josh Vitters, shortstop Starlin Castro, and right-hander Andrew Cashner have all been touted as potential trade candidates in previous discussions.
The Twins would no doubt ask for two of the three in any deal and current Cubs’ backstop, Geovany Soto as well. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Twins ask for outfielder Sam Fuld as well to round out the Minnesota outfield rotation.
The Result: In the end, the Cubs would need to clear way too much salary and with seemingly unmovable contracts belonging to Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley on the books, the Cubs would be a real dark horse to get involved in discussions for Mauer.
Los Angeles Angels
The club has the financial means to sign Mauer long-term, there’s no doubt there and the club could probably pull together a solid package to send back to Minnesota in return.
The price, in terms of big league talent, would be steeper than for other clubs, but the Angels minor league depth has faded in recent years and most of the “young talent” is in the big leagues.
Additionally, the Twins would be wary about trading their best player to another legitimate contender, without receiving some immediate return on the deal.
The Return: It wouldn’t be out of the question to assume that Ervin Santana or Joe Saunders would front the return package. Either Howie Kendrick or Bandon Wood would have to be included with one of the suddenly-displaced catchers as well.
The Result: Although the Angels would no doubt “kick the tires” on a potential swap for Mauer, the cost in terms of talent and dollars would ultimately be too prohibitive for a club with question marks all around the diamond as is.
The Angels should be far more concerned with landing a third baseman, starting pitcher, and some outfield depth. Mauer would be a luxury the club doesn’t need at the moment.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Rundown: The Dodgers would have made more sense before the McCourt’s divorce threw a monkey-wrench into the team’s offseason plans.
Mauer would be a very good compliment to a relatively young and talented lineup for years to come. He would also allow the Dodgers to move Manny Ramirez out of the three-hole in the lineup and let Mauer, a natural number three, takeover that role.
Much like the aforementioned Angels, the Dodgers would be forced to give up more players from their big league roster in a deal as general manager Ned Colletti has moved much of the club’s best minor league talent (ie: Josh Bell & Carlos Santana) in recent deadline deals.
The Return: The Twins would start a package around the Dodgers’ own talented, young catcher, Russell Martin.
The Twins would be wise to inquire about Chad Billingsley and one of Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier. There is no guarantee the club would move any of the three.
Martin, Billingsley, and shortstop prospect Devaris Gordon could potentially get the deal done if the Twins are as high on Gordon as many scouts are following his 2009 campaign.
The Result: The Dodgers won’t have the money or prospects necessary to make the deal feasible.
Additionally, the club is more concerned with bolstering a rotation that proved very vulnerable last season.
Mauer would certainly draw some interest from the Dodgers, but it would never get beyond the first phone call.
New York Mets
The Mets are currently in the market for at least one frontline starter, a corner outfielder, a first baseman, bullpen help, and potentially looking to add a new second baseman.
The club could also inquire about an additional catcher, rather than go forward with Omir Santos and Josh Thole. If the Mets were serious about a major upgrade at catcher, Mauer would be a good fit.
The club could use him as the number two hitter, thus getting him more at-bats, for the next few seasons while Wright and Beltran man the heart of the order. After Beltran moves on he could slip into his customary spot in the three-hole.
The Mets obviously could find the money to sign Mauer long-term, as they did when they acquired Johan Santana from Minnesota two years ago. The question is whether or not they’d have the right prospects and/or be willing to part with them.
The Return: The Mets would have to start with their two best positional prospects outfielder Fernando Martinez and catcher/first baseman Josh Thole. Period. There’d be no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
After that the Twins could ask about infield prospects Wilmer Flores and Reese Havens and would undoubtedly inquire about the availability of pitching prospects Jon Niese and Jenrry Mejia.
The Result: Although the Mets can’t be totally ruled out, the enormity of their flaws figures to put Mauer on their backburner this offseason.
The Mets are still reeling from a number of trades that depleted the farm system and trading off the best prospects, again, to plug one hole wouldn’t help the club much going forward.
I’d expect the Mets to look toward the free agent market for most of their moves and trades as a secondary option.
New York Yankees
The Rundown: If a player of Mauer’s caliber is available, the Yankees will no doubt come sniffing around. It doesn’t need to be mentioned, but the Yankees clearly have the right combination of talent and money to make a deal of this magnitude work.
The Yankees also have the need. Current backstop, Jorge Posada is 38 and still has two years and $26 million remaining on his current contract. It’s entirely possible that Posada will be a full-time designated hitter by the end of next season and certainly won’t finish out his contract as a starting catcher.
The club has promising prospects at the position in Francisco Cervelli, Jesus Montero, and Austin Romine. Although, none of the three project to be anywhere near as talented as Joe Mauer.
This time the club would have to be more open-minded in trade talks. Unlike Santana, Mauer contributes everyday and is just entering his prime.
The Return: The Twins inquired about Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy last time around. The Yankees promptly shut them down. A lot has changed in two years and all three figure to be available in a deal for Mauer.
The Twins would also be wise to make top outfield prospect Austin Jackson a must-have in the deal. If the Yankees balk at Jackson, general manager Bill Smith would be wise to simply hang up the phone and end the conversation.
Any of the three catcher prospects would make sense as well. Cervelli is the only one of the three with any significant big league experience, so he would make the most sense for an “immediate” return.
The Result: The Yankees would be interested, but with $26+ million committed to Posada and three young replacements on the way it makes far more sense for the club to improve elsewhere.
The Bronx Bombers are rumored to be interested in acquiring another frontline starter and are reportedly on the market for a left fielder as well.
Much like many of the team listed above, I could see the Yankees showing interest and having the right package of prospects and big league talent to entice the Twins, but with Derek Jeter’s contract expiring at the end of 2010, one has to legitimately wonder if the club would have enough money to add yet another $20 million per year contract.
With Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and presumably Derek Jeter all topping $20 million per season going forward, Mauer might just be too much, even for the Yankees.
Boston Red Sox
At the time, the Red Sox were relying on 37-year-old Jason Varitek who had regressed so much on both sides of the plate that the club nearly let him go as a free agent last offseason.
The move for Martinez shores up the position in the short-term, but Mauer is the better catcher—by far—and figures to have a longer shelf-life behind the plate than Martinez.
Acquiring Mauer would allow the Red Sox to move Martinez to first base and Kevin Youkilis to third base. As such, incumbent third baseman Mike Lowell could be moved to another team.
Mauer would give the club the best pure hitter the Sox have had since Nomar Garciaparra’s heyday.
Additionally, with the contracts of Lowell and David Ortiz expiring after 2010, the club has the money to sign Mauer long-term.
The Return: The Twins would no doubt want a better return than the Cleveland Indians received for Martinez last season. As such, the package would start with Clay Buchholz and, if Smith were feeling gutsy, he could inquire about Jon Lester.
The Red Sox depth has been somewhat compromised in recent years by trades and the amount of talent that could contribute at the big league level is limited.
Starting pitcher Michael Bowden, who seemingly has no place with Boston, would be a solid addition to any deal. Additionally, starting pitcher/shortstop Casey Kelly and outfielder Josh Reddick could both contribute down the line.
Ultimately, the Twins would be wise to ask for Buchholz and reliever Daniel Bard up front as a starting point. It would be a steep price, but the Twins would be unwise not to go all out for Mauer.
The Result: The Red Sox obviously make the most sense as a trading destination for Mauer and the Twins.
Boston has plenty of money to grant him the extension and dollars he’ll merit and they have a solid crop of prospects that are either blocked at the big league level or still far enough off that trading them wouldn’t impact Boston’s immediate future.
If Mauer does become available, expect him to land in Boston.