Joe Posnanski
Tuesday November 24th, 2009

So, it looks like I spent another sports year feeling pre-agitated about things that did not come especially close to happening. Zack Greinke won the Cy Young Award ... he won it rather easily. There was no sudden and overpowering push to get Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame while Bert Blyleven writhes in baseball limbo. The Cleveland Browns did not hire Eric Mangini.

OK, well, wait, sometimes dread does come to life.

Mostly, though, Joe Mauer won the MVP award. Ahhh. Peace at last. You probably know by now that I've been pushing Joe Mauer for the MVP for a long time now. I thought he was the MVP in 2006, when he hit .347/.429/.507 and became the first American League catcher to ever win a batting title. The MVP that year went to his Twins' teammate Justin Morneau, who finished ahead of Mauer on EVERY SINGLE BALLOT, including the ballots of the two Minnesota writers. The big argument that year, you might recall, was that the MVP should have been Derek Jeter. Few cared about Mauer. So I just assumed that I and a few of my friends had just gotten it wrong.

Then, in 2008, I thought Mauer should have won the MVP again. And this time I had an MVP vote -- so I voted for him. Mauer hit .328/.413/.451, became the second American League catcher to win a batting title (after Mauer), and, for whatever it's worth, he also won the Gold Glove. I'm not sure what that's worth... even bold analysts tend to get a bit nervous when it comes to judging catcher defense. I've heard opinions ranging from "Mauer is the best defensive catcher in the league" to "Mauer is overrated defensively" to "Mauer is dreadful defensively." My own observation (which I do not trust much at all) is that he's very good defensively, solid at the fundamentals but streaky at throwing out base runners. Whatever the case, he's a great, great hitter -- remarkable considering how difficult it is to hit over a long season when playing catcher. He finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2008 and again finished behind his teammate Morneau. And again, I just shrugged and figured, "Hey, wrong again."

Then came this year. Mauer missed the first month of the season. He returned on May 1 to face the Kansas City Royals, and in his first at-bat he homered. Now, admittedly, it was a home run off of Sidney Ponson, which should only count as about .6 of an official home run. But it was no fluke. For three days I watched Mauer go 7 for 10 against the Royals with a homer and two doubles. In my memory there were no cheap hits, either. He crushed everything.

And Mauer kept crushing the ball. His first 45 games, he hit .417 with 14 home runs. He slugged .744. I talk sometimes about the hottest hitters ever -- George Brett in the summer of 1980, Rod Carew in May and June of 1977 (.439/.494/.670 in a pitcher's era), Ted Williams throughout 1957, Barry Bonds at the start of the 2004 season*.

*You know, we all believe we have the Barry Bonds story figured out, one way or another. But no matter what you believe: The first 25 games of the 2004 season, Bonds was intentionally walked 22 times. His numbers: .463/.704/1.111 with 10 home runs, 44 walks and six strikeouts. No matter what he may have taken to get there, those numbers are simply beyond belief.

For six weeks Mauer was about as hot as any of them. And, sure, his season peaked and dipped as all baseball seasons do. But at the end of the year he had hit .344/.444/.587. He led the league in all three slash categories -- the first guy to do that in the American League since Brett in '80. And more:

• He became the third catcher to lead the American League in batting average -- after Mauer & Mauer.

• He became the first catcher to lead the American League in on-base percentage since 1933.

• He became the first catcher to lead the American League in slugging percentage since... well, I believe since ever.

Mauer also won a Gold Glove -- whatever that's worth -- and for whatever this is worth he also hit .371/.521/.527 as the Twins went 17-4 down the stretch to steal a playoff spot in the lousy American League Central. It seemed to me that he was probably as obvious an MVP candidate as I could ever remember. And I worried that he would not win again.

Well, he did win -- he was selected MVP on 27 of the 28 ballots. The player selected on the other ballot was Miggy Cabrera, which, well, was just a bizarre choice. I mean, I like Miggy, and he had another great offensive year. But Mauer hit 40 points higher, slugged 40 points higher, walked more and was even just about equal in the counting stats (96-94 in runs; 103-96 in RBIs) despite missing the first month of the season. And, oh yeah, just remembered, Mauer also was a CATCHER and a good one while Cabrera played FIRST BASE and was adequate there at best and there's no way that... but see, this is the trap. I'm not upset about this. Because it was just one ballot. It occurs to me that the point of the balloting is not to give us a list of the five best players in order. No, the point is to pick an MVP. And I think the voters got it right... and by a large margin. My worry was that numerous voters would go cuckoo and that Mauer would get lost in the flying Cocoa Puffs. But no. He won. He won easily. So it's easy to move on.

So here's a question: Just how good is Joe Mauer? I mean he's only 26 -- he will still be 26 on Opening Day in 2010 -- and it's just too early to say anything with conviction. But I'll say something outrageous anyway: I think he has a chance to be the best catcher in baseball history.

Bold stuff, eh? My own opinion is that Johnny Bench is the best major league catcher ever, with Yogi Berra second and Mike Piazza third. I say that with the belief that Josh Gibson was probably the best catcher ever, and Roy Campanella is probably Top 3 if you count his Negro leagues days. But it's hard enough to compare players from different eras. It's much harder to compare players from different worlds.

I put Bench at No. 1 because I think he was the best combination of offense and defense. That's my opinion, and an opinion I held before a certain book was written. In my mind, Berra was the closest thing to Bench, but I think Bench was just slightly better offensively and defensively (though Berra had a longer prime and was a part of so many winning teams and is probably the most quotable play baseball history -- you could argue it Berra's way too).

Piazza, meanwhile, is the greatest hitter ever to play catcher. I have little doubt about this. But that was pretty much his role, a hitter who played catcher. It's like saying Olivier was the best actor in Clash of the Titans -- true, but hardly the point. Piazza played catcher like Olivier played Zeus. In 1996 Piazza had 12 passed balls and he allowed 155 stolen bases. As a contrast, Bench from 1972 through '75 -- FOUR YEARS -- had 13 passed balls and allowed 121 stolen bases. These are not the only things that define catchers' defense, of course, and Piazza does find an occasional defender of his defense. Mainly, he seemed to me a spectacular hitting first baseman playing catcher.

Anyway, I think Mauer has a chance to be in that class. He could be the class of that class. As a hitter he has every chance to be in Piazza's league. As a catcher he's probably not quite Bench or Ivan Rodriguez, but I think he's awfully good and seemingly committed to getting better. Seems like there aren't many limits.

And that leads to our final two questions: How much money could Joe Mauer get on the open market? And is he now the most valuable player in baseball (in the truest definition of valuable, adj. -- worth a great deal of money)?

How much? Well, I think he's a $30 million a year player. That's the A-Rod stratosphere, and Mauer seems to me to be the one guy out there who can reach those sorts of numbers even in the current climate, assuming he decides to push for as much money as he can get.

And that leads right into the second answer: Yes, I do think Mauer is the most valuable player, by price, in baseball. But I want to expand on that for a moment: I still think that Albert Pujols is the best player in the game. If I was starting an expansion team tomorrow, and I could have any one player, I would start it with Albert Pujols.

But that's not really how it works. Ask yourself this: Who is going to give Albert Pujols $30 million a year when he becomes a free agent? Yes, the Cardinals might. The Cardinals should do whatever they have to do because Pujols BELONGS in St. Louis. He fits that city perfectly. That city loves him. He is worth more to St. Louis and the Cardinals than he would be worth anywhere else*.

*Which reminds me of one more quick random baseball thought: I think the Kansas City Royals should do what they can to trade for Curtis Granderson -- if Granderson is really available. I do not only say this because I like Granderson (Facebook friend!). I say this because I think Granderson would be worth more to Kansas City than he would be worth anywhere else. We all know that Granderson is a good baseball player with a couple of apparent flaws, the biggest being that he cannot hit left-handed pitching. He's also coming off a trying year, and he turns 29, and he has fallen off in each of the last two seasons. Also he strikes out a lot.

So why would he be more valuable in KC than other places? Because: Those flaws don't matter in Kansas City. Not at all. The Royals have no center fielder and none on the horizon. They are in desperate and critical need of all the good things that Granderson provides. Granderson is a good defensive center fielder, an effective base stealer, a typically good base runner, a guy who crushes righties, a class act and he's one of the most respected players in the game. Who cares about strikeouts? Other teams might like having Curtis Granderson, but Kansas City would build around him. The Royals are not about anything right now except for their amazing ability to lose even with Zack Greinke. They could be about Curtis Granderson. That would be a huge improvement.

Sorry: Back to Pujols. St. Louis should sign him at pretty much all costs. But let's be honest: If not St. Louis... well, who else? Look at the big-money bidders out there. The Yankees already have a very expensive first baseman that they feel pretty good about. Mark Teixeira may not be quite Albert Pujols, but it's not that big a drop-off. The Boston Red Sox spend money, but they also have a first baseman, Kevin Youkilis. Is Pujols better? Sure. But, again, Youk is a great player. Maybe one of those teams makes a hard run at Pujols. Then again, probably not.

So, suddenly the big bidder is... the Mets? Sure, the Mets would love to get Pujols. But, look around the league: The Brewers have Prince Fielder. The Phillies have Ryan Howard. The Tigers have Miggy Cabrera. The Twins have Justin Morneau. The Angels have Kendry Morales. On the horizon, there's Joey Votto and Billy Butler. In the distance, there's Todd Helton. Point is there are A LOT of good-hitting first basemen out there, and there are always more on the way. Pujols is better than any of them, of course. But if you can't quite get him, well, you can spend a little less and get a terrific player.

But EVERY TEAM wants Joe Mauer. Think the Yankees need a great young catcher? The Red Sox? Sure they do: Because EVERY TEAM needs a great young catcher. And after Mauer... yeah, it's a drop. The best hitting catcher after Mauer is probably Victor Martinez ... who is about to turn 31, and he only played catcher about 55 percent of the time. Brian McCann is still young and he hits, though certainly not like Mauer. Yadier Molina is spectacular defensively and he will not strike out and he will poke a single now and again.

After that... well, it's a long, long, long, long way down.

So if you're the Yankees, and you have $30 million a year to spend on a player, and Pujols and Mauer are out there, who are you signing? It's not even close, is it? What about the Red Sox? And, for that matter, what about the Mets? The Phillies? The Angels? The Cubs? Any big spending team you can think of? Pujols is the best. But Mauer is a freak of nature, and an utterly unique talent.

With that in mind, I tried to come up with the 12 most valuable players in baseball by price. I took into account age, position, versatility, dependability and, yes, marketability. The idea is this: If you threw every player in baseball into an open market, what 12 players would get the biggest contracts? I think it would go something like this:

1. Joe Mauer 2. Albert Pujols 3. Chase Utley 4. Zack Greinke 5. Hanley Ramirez 6. Tim Lincecum 7. Roy Halladay 8. Evan Longoria 9. Felix Hernandez 10. Alex Rodriguez 11. C.C. Sabathia 12. Derek Jeter

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