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Transaction Retrospection: Joe Mauer’s Extension

Though negotiations between J.T. Realmuto and the Phillies are currently on hold, the idea of a contract extension between the two sides has been gestating for months.  As such, there has already been a lot of speculation about how a Realmuto deal (if one is reached) will shake up the pay scale of catcher contracts.  The latest reports indicated that Realmuto was looking for an extension that would pay him more guaranteed money than Buster Posey’s eight-year, $159MM extension with the Giants, which is the second-biggest deal ever given to a catcher.

The largest catcher contract in history?  That agreement came exactly ten years ago today, with the Twins making the official announcement a day later.  Minnesota had inked Joe Mauer, its star player and local hero, to an eight-year, $184MM extension that covered the 2011-18 season.  Not only was it was the largest deal ever signed by a catcher, but it was the fourth-largest contract in baseball history as of March 2010 — only Alex Rodriguez’s two mega-contracts with the Rangers and Yankees, and Derek Jeter’s ten-year, $189MM extension with the Yankees topped Mauer’s $184MM payday.

Could Realmuto and his representatives try to top Mauer’s contract?  Even before the coronavirus pandemic added an extra layer of uncertainty over baseball and the world at large, it didn’t seem overly likely, though Realmuto’s camp had some interest in topping Mauer’s $23MM average annual value.  Like Mauer at the time of his extension, Realmuto is just a season away from free agency, but Realmuto recently turned 29 years old, while Mauer was only entering his age-27 season at time of his deal.

Plus, there’s also the fact that the Phillies would naturally be gunshy about signing a catcher to that large a contract given how things played out in Minnesota.  Unfortunately for both Mauer and the Twins, the fairytale story of the St. Paul native staying with his hometown team and leading them to a World Series title didn’t come to pass, as 2011-18 was a lean period the franchise.  After reaching the postseason six times between 2002-10, the Twins only had one playoff appearance and two winning seasons total over the course of Mauer’s extension.

That period also saw Mauer’s production decline, though some dropoff was inevitable given the high level of Mauer’s first seven MLB seasons.  From 2004-10, only six players topped Mauer’s 34.2 fWAR, as he developed into one of baseball’s best all-around players.  Those seven years saw Mauer hit .327/.407/.481 with 81 home runs over 3578 PA, while amassing a resume that includes four All-Star appearances, four Silver Slugger Awards, three Gold Gloves, three AL batting titles, and four top-eight finishes in AL MVP voting.

Mauer’s best season came directly before his extension, as he was named AL MVP after hitting .365/.444/.587 (leading the American League in all three categories) with 28 homers over 606 plate appearances.  As per Fangraphs, Mauer’s 2009 was tied for the fifth-best season ever for a catcher in terms of fWAR, with 8.4.

These numbers add context to the extension and perhaps serve as a bit of a reminder — Joe Mauer was an awesome player in his prime.  Just about any big-market team in the game would have happily given Mauer eight years and $184MM given the opportunity to extend him, and the fact that a smaller market club like the Twins also felt comfortable in taking the plunge speaks to Mauer’s value at the time.

Of course, the Twins faced unique pressure to retain Mauer given his roots, as the idea of a literal homegrown superstar leaving for another franchise would have been a particularly tough blow for Minnesota.  It should be noted that the Twins’ extension with Mauer was met with near-unanimous praise from both their own fans and the baseball world in general, with many comparing Mauer to the likes of Tony Gwynn, George Brett, or Cal Ripken Jr. as a one-team star who would define a franchise for a generation.  ESPN.com’s Buster Olney described the extension as “going to be viewed as a strong development for Major League Baseball, at a time when there are growing concerns about the disparity between teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, and teams that generate less revenue.”

A decade after the fact, that disparity certainly remains despite the large amount of new revenue (from TV contracts and online media) coming into the sport, as it still stands out as notable when a non-major market franchise makes a particularly big splurge to sign a free agent, acquire a big contract in a trade, or ink one of its own stars to an extension.  In the latter case, teams have become more and more proactive about extending their players earlier in their careers, well before they get even a year away from free agency as Mauer did.

From 2011-18, Mauer still provided above-average (113 wRC+, 114 OPS+) production by hitting .290/.372/.405 over 4382 plate appearances.  The problem was, however, that this production was less impressive coming from a first baseman than it would have been from a catcher.  Minnesota shifted Mauer out from behind the plate after the 2013 season due to a number of concussions and knee problems, and Mauer never played catcher again until his very last game, when he caught a single pitch in the ninth inning before being substituted out.

Mauer’s contract made him a particular target for criticism during the Twins’ struggles in the 10’s, which was an unfair burden given that Minnesota’s issues had much more to do with a number of trades and signings during the decade that provided far less return than the Mauer extension.  It’s easy to say in hindsight that the Twins erred in keeping Mauer, though that also makes the assumption that the club would have spent that extra $23MM per season on more canny roster upgrades….or that the Twins would have even stretched their payroll to that extent whatsoever.

Ten years later, the Mauer extension is perhaps best seen as a defensible investment that didn’t quite pan out.  Given the perfect storm of age, production, and added hometown value that went into the contract, it may yet be a while before another catcher tops it, with Realmuto’s potential new deal with Philadelphia standing as the closest challenger in years.

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