Joe Mauer didn't need to win the American League Most Valuable Player award on Monday to justify his historic season, just as he doesn't need that particular piece of hardware to reaffirm his status as the best catcher in baseball. But this latest honor is especially appropriate because it serves as a reminder that no player in baseball is more valuable to his town, his team or his franchise than the 26-year-old hometown hero with the perfectly manicured sideburns and the perfectly pleasant personality.
Just how valuable Mauer is has yet to be adequately quantified, and it won't be until his next contract is signed, which figures to be the central theme surrounding his 2010 season as he defends his AL MVP award and the Twins defend the AL Central title they won due mostly to Mauer's brilliance. But there is no question that no player, not even St. Louis' Albert Pujols, who figures to join Mauer as an '09 MVP on Tuesday, or the Yankees' Derek Jeter, who finished third to Mauer in the AL voting, is as beloved by his city's fans as Mauer is and as significant to his team's success. Take, for example, this past season. When the Cardinals needed an offensive injection, they traded for Matt Holliday, he of the $13.5 million deal and .300-plus career average. The Yankees' economic excess is well-documented, but even by their standards, spending nearly a half a billion dollars last offseason to add to their stable of stars was eye-opening.
The Twins have neither the wealth, nor the wealth of talent, that those clubs do, which makes Mauer all the more vital to them. It isn't hard to imagine Minnesota sinking back into the depths of its division without Mauer, but it would be hard to imagine Mauer agreeing to a new contract anytime soon, which means that for the next 12 months -- or until he re-ups with the Twins, whichever comes first -- baseball will have its version of LeBron James. Both are supremely gifted players at the height of their abilities, starring for small-market hometown teams who would surely cease to be legitimate contenders without them. What's more, both possess the ability to boost a team's title aspirations -- as well as their own income -- single-handedly and both would be as attractive to Madison Avenue as they are to their potential employers.
While Cavaliers fans agonize over the latest LeBron rumors, Twins fans can take solace in the knowledge that not only do they get to watch Mauer for another season, but that to date, there has been little or no posturing about a new contract or public speculation about free agency on Mauer's part as there has been on James'. Part of that is because James can't help but be inundated with queries about where he'll land after the 2010 season because he's in the midst of the final year of his current deal, while Mauer still has a year to go; part of it is because Mauer is not the global icon that James is; and part of it is because Mauer has proven remarkably adept at deflecting such talk.
It certainly didn't impact him on the field, where he won a Gold Glove while leading the league in batting average (.363, the highest ever for a catcher), on-base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.587) and virtually carried the Twins down the stretch. After losing at home to the A's on Sept. 12, the Twins were 70-72 and in third place in the AL Central. That was also the last game of the season for 2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau, who sat out the rest of the year with a back injury. Beginning the next day, Mauer batted .378/.521/.527 over the final 21 games, during which the Twins went 17-4 to catch the Tigers in the AL Central and then win a one-game playoff with Detroit. For good measure, Mauer batted .417 in the Twins' ALDS loss to the Yankees.
Not that the Yankees or anyone else needed him to, but if it was an audition of sorts, Mauer certainly passed it. He is currently the second-highest paid catcher in the game, behind only the Yankees' Jorge Posada. But Posada's contract will expire after the 2011 season, by which time he will be 40 years old, which means that the Yankees will almost certainly be targeting Mauer as his replacement this time next year.
It also means that Mauer is in for a sizable raise over the $12.5 million that he'll make next season. The Twins will need to balance their desire to keep Mauer with their desire to field a competitive team, which is far easier said than done. They can't tie up too substantial a portion of their payroll in one player without limiting their flexibility to make other moves, and yet they can't simply let Mauer go without putting up a fight. Part of it may depend on just how much of a financial boost they receive from playing in brand-new Target Field, which opens next April. But even with a few extra dollars from luxury suites and concessions, the Twins will never be able to bridge the cavernous gap between themselves and the Yankees (or, for that matter, the Red Sox, who will also be looking for a catcher next winter, when Jason Varitek and Victor Martinez will be free agents).
It's hard to find a comparable situation to Mauer's in recent history. The last catcher to be the best player available on the open market was probably Mike Piazza in 1998, but by that time, Piazza was already 30 years old. When his seven-year deal expired after the 2005 season, he was earning more than $16 million a year while batting just .251. Mauer will be just 27 when his current contract runs out, so even a seven-year deal would only take him into his mid-30s, and if he stays in the AL he can DH as often as he needs to in order to remain fresh.
What the Twins might lack in dollars, they can attempt to make up for by playing to Mauer's humility and stature as a living legend in his home state. This, after all, is a guy who grew up rooting for the Twins, who had to borrow his mom's car to drive to the Metrodome in 2004, the day he made his big league debut, and who looks forward to nothing as much as spending time at his cabin in the northern Minnesota woods.
Mauer has become as much a part of Minnesota as snowstorms, which is why on Monday afternoon, two of the first three comments posted on the Web site of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune story that announced Mauer's win were so direct in their orders to the Twins' front office to not let him leave. One implored the teams owners to "Pony Up Pohlads" and read "not only for a record breaking contract for Joe, but also for a big time acquisition to prove to Joe you are serious about building a winner." The other had the heading "Keep Mauer" and said "Please...please...please sign Joe Mauer to a long-term contract SOON!"
If that reaction is any indication, it's clear that the only thing more important to his fellow Minnesotans than having Mauer in Minnesota right now would be having him around for a very long time.