The Free Press, Mankato, MN

August 26, 2013

Thoma column: Mauer's injuries raise position switch idea


The Mankato Free Press

---- — Joe Mauer’s concussion has revived the chatter about an eventual position switch for the Twins’ franchise player.

There is no question that catcher is the most physically taxing position. The best catchers — the type who, like Mauer, are obviously a plus both at the plate and behind it — play less than their counterparts at other positions, and still play too often to sustain lengthy careers.

This year’s rash of catcher concussions — the Twins alone have had two backstops hit the seven-day list — suggests that the “wear and tear” factor for catchers goes beyond the knee, back and thigh stresses of the squat or the bruising and finger fractures imposed by foul tips to the effect of accumulated brain bruises.

Mauer is 30, approaching the age at which great catchers historically see their abilities crumble. And his contract runs another five years at $23 million a season.

Some $115 million is a powerful incentive for the team to seek to protect their investment and keep him in the lineup. The problem is that a big part of what makes Mauer worthy of that money is that he is a catcher.

According to Baseball Reference, the average major league first baseman (the position Mauer is most likely to be moved to if he does cease catching) is hitting .261/.336/.436, good for a raw OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .773 — the most productive position.

The average catcher, in contrast, hits .248/.314/.395, OPS .709. Only shortstops are less productive as hitters.

Mauer’s .880 OPS this year is essentially neck-and-neck with Yadier Molina (.882) at the top of the catchers heap. That same OPS would rank only fifth among major league first basemen.

It’s possible, of course, that Mauer would hit better if he were separated from the more demanding defensive chores. Even so, he gives the Twins a bigger edge over their rivals as a catcher.

The early commentary from Ron Gardenhire (who may or may not have a say in coming years) indicates that he’s not ready to surrender that advantage. But if Mauer’s current concussion is more than a brief time on the sideline, the incentive to move him will grow.

Moving Mauer would prompt the Twins to decline re-signing Justin Morneau (a free agent after the season), which is a decision they might reach regardless. It would probably keep them out of the bidding for Cuban defector Jose Abreu, which they may or may not enter. It would force them to either hasten the arrival of prospect Josmil Pinto next season or get by with the combo of Doumit and Chris Herrmann.

The equation hasn’t changed. Mauer is more valuable as a catcher than as a first baseman. But he’s more valuable as a first baseman than on the shelf. And now that he’s in his 30s, that second sentence is gaining importance.

Edward Thoma (344-6377; ethoma@mankatofreepress.com) maintains his Baseball Outsider blog at fpbaseballoutsider.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @bboutsider.