Mauer signs with Twins through 2018

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Maybe there’s never been a city and a ballplayer more suited for each other than Minneapolis-St. Paul and Joe Mauer(notes), except that would be two cities and a ballplayer, presumably because one town alone couldn’t hold all that love.

And now maybe the folks there can put down the paper bags and stop the hyperventilating.

Conceding it’s bad business to build a ballpark only to have your own fans burn it down, the Minnesota Twins agreed Sunday to extend Mauer’s contract by $184 million and eight years. The deal, which kicks in for the 2011 season and extends through 2018, includes a no-trade clause. Mauer’s agent, Ron Shapiro, made it clear to the team two months ago that negotiations would cease once the regular season began, and talks picked up steam well in advance of that deadline.

Twins catcher Joe Mauer at spring training.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The $23 million average annual value of the deal is higher than any player besides Alex Rodriguez ($27.5 million) and CC Sabathia ($23 million). Only A-Rod and Derek Jeter have signed contracts for more overall value and the deal more than doubles the largest ever for a catcher (Mike Piazza signed a $91 million, seven-year contract in 1999).

The result is that there will be no Joe Mauer free agency at the end of the year. No Joe Mauer in Boston. No Joe Mauer in New York. Joe Mauer will not show up in Minneapolis one terrible day in pinstripes, unless he is planning on wearing a suit to the news conference. On the list of most revered Minnesota sports figures ever, the line will continue to form behind Joe Mauer of the St. Paul Mauers, of the Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders, of Big Jake and Teresa Mauer, of Grandpa Jake, of, of the Minnesota Twins, of all that is still pure and right with America’s fragile pastime.

Yes, it is a great day for commissioner Bud Selig’s parity and for faux sideburns and for small markets and people who don’t mind rooting for the uniform but just this once would love to root for the man inside it. These are the same people, remember, who two years ago waved goodbye to Johan Santana(notes) and Torii Hunter(notes), and who rationalized the club’s decisions with the belief team CEO Jim Pohlad must be saving up for the sturdy, sweet-swinging catcher they’d all helped to rear.

Indeed, the day has come to celebrate the Twins, who are just plain smarter than most. When a once-in-a-lifetime player came along, a man so perfect Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon once told Sports Illustrated, “I think when God made his blueprint for catchers, he stamped Joe out,” the small-town Twins became big-time spenders. You can’t keep shipping off franchise faces. So, they parlayed a farewell season at the Metrodome and an inaugural season at Target Field and another trip to the playoffs (their fifth in eight seasons) and a homegrown, good-guy stud into a career-long event: Come see Joe Mauer play ball the way it oughta be played (bring a scarf). It’s all just right.

You know, unless the organization doesn’t ever recover from it.

Before we all hug this out, let’s at least acknowledge the downside. Teams with payrolls bogarted by a single player are often flawed in too many areas, and fatally so in at least one. Only the 2003 Florida Marlins won a World Series while carrying one player – in their case Ivan Rodriguez(notes) – who pulled in 20 percent or more of the payroll. In this case, the rest of the roster would be next to impossible to replicate, considering the 27-and-under crowd on that Marlins club included Derrek Lee(notes), Luis Castillo(notes), Alex Gonzalez, Juan Pierre(notes), Juan Encarnacion(notes), Miguel Cabrera(notes), Carl Pavano(notes), Brad Penny(notes), Dontrelle Willis(notes), Josh Beckett(notes) and A.J. Burnett(notes).

Presumably, the Twins have thought of this. That they had no choice but to risk it doesn’t make it any less risky. It is the line on which the have-nots exist. A drunken dalliance with the haves doesn’t make them haves. It simply makes them poorer have-nots. And dumber ones, too.

Fortunately for the Twins and the Mauers of St. Paul, there’s time. The pitching staff is young and suitably talented and reasonably priced. Justin Morneau(notes) and Denard Span(notes) are under team control through 2013, Joe Nathan(notes) through 2012, Michael Cuddyer(notes) and Jason Kubel(notes) through 2011. Assuming Bill Smith can fill in the gaps – which includes replacing the injured Nathan this season – and Minnesotans can brave the April and September frost on Twins Way and the Pohlads can pay the bills, the Twins won’t collapse under the Mauer contract anytime soon.

Granted, they might soon pay a premium price not for a catcher but for a corner infielder or outfielder who just last season started hitting home runs like a corner man, but so what. Mauer is a premium ballplayer no matter where he stands on the ballfield, and a premium hitter, and a premium gentleman. He’s Tony Gwynn(notes) in San Diego, Cal Ripken Jr. in Baltimore, Derek Jeter(notes) in New York, Kirby Puckett all over again. Better even.

Asked recently about where this was headed, Mauer was, well, Mauer.

“I just don’t want it to be a distraction from what we’re trying to do as a team for 2010,” he said. “I just want to prepare for the season and hopefully not be the focus of everything.”

Yes, it’s a risk. The Twins, being who they are and where they are, can’t have this end badly, or it would cripple the franchise for far longer than the life of the contract. But, you know, sometimes you have to believe in something, right?

The Twins wanted to get out from under the roof. Well, now there’ll be sunny days. And rainy days.

If you’re going to believe, it might as well be in Joe Mauer.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Mar 21, 2010