Joe Mauer’s impending free agency and possible retirement looms over Twins as 2018 season concludes.
The Minnesota Twins are not going anywhere in 2018. Even with a weakened American League Central Division, the Twins failed to capitalize on their strong 2017 season with another playoff appearance. Instead, they sit well behind the Indians for the division title and have a record under .500.
As a result, the Twins were active sellers this season, trading away numerous valuable players for prospects and other major-leaguers. The list of the six main players the Twins traded away are below:
A down season means the Twins enter the offseason without a clear agenda. Should they retool and try to compete in 2019 or start a rebuild? One of the major roster decisions will be to decide what to do with the 35-year-old Joe Mauer, who is in the last year of the massive eight-year, $184 million contract he signed in 2010.
It is quite possible that Joe Mauer retires at the end of the season. If that happens, Mauer will be retiring as one of the Twins greatest players of all time and one of the best hitting catchers the game has seen.
However, if Mauer decides he wants to continue playing, should the Twins re-sign him or let him go elsewhere?
If the Twins are sentimental, they will bring Mauer back. He grew up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area and has spent his entire career with the Minnesota Twins. He is one of the best all-time Twins players. However, whether they should, from a baseball perspective, complicates the discussion.
Mauer is 35 and will turn 36 next season. Although he hasn’t necessarily had the gradual decline most players face (he hit .305 with a .384 OBP in 2017, which are around his career averages), Mauer has struggled with injuries throughout his career. But the reason why this decision is even harder for the Twins to make is that he simply does not fit the typical first base profile. While he still continues to hit a respectable batting average and gets on base at a relatively good clip, Mauer has always lacked power, a characteristic that most first basemen are expected to have.
Mauer’s .086 ISO ranks seventh from the bottom of all batting qualifiers and dead last when compared to other first basemen. He’s only tallied 32 extra base hits this year, and only six of those have been for home runs.
Mauer’s power peaked in 2009 when he hit 29 home runs. Since then, he has not gotten close to matching or surpassing that figure. One of the reasons Mauer’s power numbers are down can be traced to his average launch angle. While many hitters have adjusted their swings in order to hit for the fences at a more frequent rate, Mauer’s launch angle has stayed consistent throughout his career:
Compared to the league average which sits at around 11.5 degrees, Mauer’s launch angle is well below the norm for a MLB hitter. However, despite Mauer’s lack of power, he does offer solid defense, a decent batting average, and a high OBP. What sets Mauer apart from his potential replacements at first place is his clutch-hitting ability. The chart below shows how Mauer’s clutch batting numbers are better than his regular numbers when no one is in scoring position.
Mauer’s .408 batting average with runners in scoring position is particularly strong. It is the highest on the team and one of the best in the league. Mauer may be 35, but he still offers a solid bat in the Twins lineup as long as he’s not counted on to blast home runs into the Target Field stands.
If Mauer decides to retire, the question becomes who will be his heir apparent? The most logical replacement for Mauer would be Tyler Austin, who was traded from the Yankees to the Twins. He may not offer the on-base or bat-to-ball skills that Mauer has, but he profiles more as a typical first baseman in that he offers a more powerful bat.
Austin’s biggest flaw, and one reason why Mauer is still the better play at first base, is that he is an unknown commodity. Austin has not yet logged much playing time in the majors to know exactly what the Twins can consistently count on him for. In August, Austin had a strong offensive performance, slashing .263/.328/.649 with seven home runs (more than Mauer has had the entire season). However, in September, Austin was hitting only .125 until a recent hot streak elevated his weak statistics to a .229/.263/.343 batting line.
The Twins could also choose to move Miguel Sano over from third base to first. Although Sano did get sent down to Single-A this year, he is a power hitter who can provide an offensive spark. Sano, however, would have to show the Twins that he can rebound from a disastrous 2018 season that saw his batting average dip below the Mendoza Line. His walk rate decreased from 11.1% to 8.6%, and his strikeout rate soared.
So the Twins have a big decision to make: Do they retool and aim to challenge the Indians in 2019, or do they start to rebuild and aim to contend a few years down the road? If Twins ownership decides to rebuild, then Tyler Austin should see a substantial increase in playing time. In this scenario, if Mauer still decides to come back, it would behoove the Twins to allow him to assume a platoon role (split time between first base and designated hitter) or simply let him walk in free agency. With primary designated hitter Logan Morrison’s contract coming off the books after the 2018 season, the Twins will have the DH spot vacant, which they could deploy Mauer at more frequently in 2019 if they choose.
If the Twins decide to retool and aim to contend, Mauer clearly offers the best short term value. He may not offer prodigious power, but he gives them a steady, consistent bat along with a clearly defined leadership role in the clubhouse. In this scenario, Mauer will still continue to get the majority of the first base starts. The team will then have to figure out how to utilize Tyler Austin, whether that involves him taking over as designated hitter, splitting time with Mauer at first base and designated hitter, or playing everyday in Triple-A.
Due to Mauer being grouped with the likes of Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew in terms of greatest Twins ever to play, it can be expected that the Twins will give Mauer all the time he needs to make a decision regarding playing in 2019. As a result, the Twins will not make their decision regarding first base until Mauer makes his. However, if he chooses to come back, it would be hard for the Twins to not re-sign him despite the absence of power.
All statistics and information originated from ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.
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