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November 25, 2009

On the Beat

Midweek Update

by John Perrotto

It has been suggested from about the second plate appearance of his increasingly Cooperstown-like career that Joe Mauer needs to change positions. However, the Twins' superstar has been reluctant to even think about moving out from behind the plate. The reasoning goes that Mauer's offensive effort would eventually suffer from the physical and mental toll taken from a catcher. Catcher is the position I've been playing ever since I was a kid," Mauer said. "I like catching. I like being involved in the game on every pitch. I really can't imagine myself playing another position. Maybe later in my career I could but not now. I don't thinking playing catcher has had any effect on my performance."

Hardly. Mauer won the American League Most Valuable Player Award on Monday, getting 27 of 28 first-place votes. He continued to blow large holes in that conventional wisdom that catchers can't be productive offensive players over the long haul. To digress for a moment, the other first-place vote went to the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera. Kyodo News-Japan's Keizo Konishi apparently didn't hear about the drunken rampage the first baseman went on during the final weekend of the regular season while his team was becoming the first in baseball history to blow a three-game lead with four to play. Behavior like that takes the V out of MVP. Ironically, the Tigers were overtaken by Mauer's Twins in a tiebreaker game for the ages. It was quite fitting the Twins made it to the postseason because Mauer deserved to be on the big stage, albeit for just three games as the Yankees swept their American League Division Series, after having a season for the ages.

Mauer hit .365/.444/.587 in 606 plate appearances and led the AL in all three slash categories. He also hit 28 home runs, more than doubling his career best of 13 set in 2006. And Mauer did this despite missing all of spring training and the first month of the regular season because of a lower back injury. Mauer also topped the league in such BP favorites as EqA (.346) and VORP (91.0). He was second in the league in WARP3 with 9.8, trailing only Royals pitcher Zack Greinke, who finished with 11.1 en route to winning the AL Cy Young Award.

Mauer's 1031 OPS was the fourth-highest by a catcher in a season with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title since 1901; the three better were the 1070 by Mike Piazza with the 1997 Dodgers, 1045 by Bill Dickey with the 1936 Yankees, and 1034 by Gabby Hartnett with the 1930 Cubs. Unfortunately the Retrosheet Era consists of the seasons in which complete play-by-play data of all major-league games is available and stretches back to 1954. Thus, advanced metrics cannot yet be computed for Dickey and Hartnett. However, they are for 1997 and Piazza truly had a great season, even bettering Mauer's 2009. Piazza finished behind Mauer in WARP3 (9.6), but ahead of him in EqA (.362) and VORP (102.4).

Piazza was more than two years older than Mauer when he had his big season, turning 29 on Sept. 4. Mauer turned 26 on April 19. Looking at Piazza's career might offer some insight into how long Mauer can continue to be a highly productive offensive player while staying behind the plate. Piazza followed his '97 season with WARP3s of 6.8, 5.4, 5.3, and 5.6 from 1998-2001 before he started declining with a 2.7 mark in 2002, his age-33 season, with the Mets. He played five more seasons, but had a combined 5.8 WARP3in that span.

If Mauer follows the same course, he would have seven more good seasons before hitting the decline phase of his career at 33. That is very important because Mauer, born and bred in St. Paul, can become a free agent at the end of the 2010 season. The question of whether the Twins can sign him to a long-term extension has become the biggest sports story in the Twin Cities this side of Brett Favre.

As much as the Twins know it would be a public relations disaster to allow Mauer to go, especially since they are moving into taxpayer-funded Target Field next April, they do have to weigh that against how much his production might tail off in the latter stages of a long-term contract. A back injury for a catcher always provides cause for concern. However, Mauer believes it has worked to his benefit. He increased his strength during the rehabilitation process and will need to maintain it in order to prevent a recurrence of the back problems. "I had to do a lot of work to strengthen my core muscles and it really made a big difference," Mauer said. "I came back hitting the ball farther than I ever have before. I still don't consider myself a classic home-run hitter, but I do think being stronger made a difference and will continue to make a difference."

History says Mauer might have a hard time ever topping his 2009 season, though. However, he sounds like a guy motivated to prove conventional wisdom wrong, just like he has been doing since he came to the big leagues in 2004. "I'm not the kind of guy who looks at my stats during the season but it is kind of neat to look now that the season is over," Mauer said. "To have that kind of season then to top it off with being picked as the MVP is really special but it also makes me want to work that much harder this winter to come back and do even better next season. I really think I'm capable of more than what I did this year."

---

The Yankees went on the offensive last offseason, spending $423.5 million on free agents CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. You can make a pretty strong case that it was money well spent, since the Yankees won their first World Series title since 2000 this year. With the trophy in their case, the Yankees aren't talking like they are going to be big spenders this offseason. General manager Brian Cashman still hasn't mapped out his winter strategy, waiting until he meets with managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and his brother Hank next week. "Once I get some firm numbers then I can go ahead and start putting together some ideas," Cashman said.

The Yankees actually lowered their payroll from $209 million in 2008 to $201 million in 2009. The general feeling is Steinbrenners will tell Cashman to hold the line for 2010. "I think the big picture is to be real efficient with how we allocate our resources," Cashman said. "Obviously, last year showed examples of, depending who it is, we can step up in a big way. I think we're going to try to be careful. Careful doesn't mean slow. We're trying to spend it wisely, make the right commitments to use for the present and the future."

Cashman also plans to make contact with his own free agents first, notably left-hander Andy Pettitte, left fielder Johnny Damon, and designated hitter Hideki Matsui, before exploring other options on the market. "I don't want to make the mistake of having a conversation with somebody else's agent and it plays out as if I'm pursuing that guy, and somebody misinterprets it (and) that means I'm not pursuing our guy," Cashman said. "We're not even at that stage yet. So I'm trying to be very careful and respectful to our players first, make sure they're aware of where they are in the process."

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Like everyone involved with the Cardinals, first baseman Albert Pujols is extremely curious to see how Matt Holliday's free agency plays out. Holliday helped the Cardinals win the National League Central last season as he hit .353/.419/.604 with 13 home runs in 270 plate appearances after being acquired from the Athletics in a trade on July 24. He also had 3.6 WARP3.

"He made the difference for us," said Pujols, who unanimously won his third NL MVP Award on Tuesday. "We were struggling when we traded him for him and he was exactly what we needed. He really picked us up. I can't say enough about how much he meant to us."

Pujols also said he and Holliday discussed his impending free agency late in the season. "Matt came to me and wanted to talk," Pujols said. "It's a big decision for him but it's one he has to make himself because it's important he does what's best for him and his family. For selfish reasons, I want him to come back to the Cardinals because he's a great guy, a great teammate, and can help us win a lot of games. I know he was happy in St. Louis. Hopefully, he will sign with us but ultimately I want him to do what make him and his family happy."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: New Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos wants to bring a quick end to the Roy Halladay situation, and is most likely to trade him before the winter meetings end on December 10 at Indianapolis. If the Jays can live without shortstop Erick Aybar being included, they have a good chance of striking a deal with the Angels. The Tigers would like to trade Cabrera more than they are letting on publicly, but many teams are scared off by his alcohol-related incidents last season, worrying he may have a problem. While the Tigers have listened to offers for right-hander Edwin Jackson and center fielder Curtis Granderson, they haven't heard anything close to enticing them to trade either player. The Marlins would trade right-hander Josh Johnson if blown away by an offer, but contrary to much speculation the Padres appear ready to hold onto first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The Mariners are offering second baseman Jose Lopez in trade talks, but many teams believe he needs to switch positions because of a lack of range, and is not as valuable playing a corner infield spot. Right-hander John Lackey is the Mets' primary starting pitching target in free agency, but they have a number of contingency plans if they can't sign him, topped by right-hander Jason Marquis, and also including left-hander Randy Wolf and righties Joel Pineiro and Ben Sheets. The Rockies are ready to give the starting catching job back to Chris Iannetta if they cannot re-sign Yorvit Torrealba, but they would want an experienced backup and would target free agent Brian Schneider, among others. Torrealba is likely headed to the Giants to replace free agent Bengie Molina, and would serve as the stopgap until top prospect Buster Posey takes over as the starter either at some point next season or in 2011. The Braves are considering a number of free-agent outfielders, including Marlon Byrd, Mike Cameron, and Xavier Nady.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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