So, it looks like I spent another sports year feeling pre-agitated about things that did not come especially close to happening.
OK, well, wait, sometimes dread does come to life.
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
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 --
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
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
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
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
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
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
How much? Well, I think he's a $30 million a year player. That's the
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
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*.
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.
So, suddenly the big bidder is... the Mets? Sure, the Mets would love to get Pujols. But, look around the league: The Brewers have
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
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