The Joe Mauer dilemma

Joe Mauer(notes) is about to get a ludicrously large payday – presumably in the $20 million per year range – but that fact really isn't meaningful for any of us in the fantasy community (unless you're actively trying to sell him something). Here, we care primarily about the imaginary payday Mauer is about to receive.

If your intention is to purchase his services in 2010, then you'll need to commit a substantial percentage of your budget. In the Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide we set Mauer's mixed league suggested retail price at $42. That number is probably insane, yet surprisingly easy to justify. Mauer enhanced his Hall of Fame resume with several bullet-points last year – MVP award (his first), Gold Glove (second), batting title (third), Silver Slugger (third) – while massively out-producing the standard-issue fantasy catcher. He led all players at his position in runs (94), homers (28) and, obviously, batting average (.365).

At the risk of appearing too self-referential, we'll briefly direct your attention back to this feature from last season, in which we discussed expected performance from each fantasy roster position based on the prior year's data. In 2008, the top 15 catchers averaged 56 runs scored, 14 home runs, 64 RBIs and two stolen bases while collectively hitting .265. Those were the most useful players at the position according to end-of-season Yahoo! ranks. In 2009, Mauer exceeded those totals by 38 runs, 14 homers, 32 RBIs, two steals and 100 points of batting average. For comparison's sake, Albert Pujols(notes) exceeded the average '08 performance of the ownable first basemen by 34 runs, 17 homers, 28 RBIs, 12 steals and 40 points of batting average.

So the magnitude of the difference between Mauer and the typical starting fantasy catcher was enormous. It was Pujolsian. If you expect Mauer to perfectly reproduce his 2009 stats in 2010, then there's really no dilemma at all. You should slot him somewhere near the top of your overall ranks, then move along to other subjects.

The reason a Mauer dilemma exists for the rest of us, however, is that we're not prepping for last year's league. Instead, we're preparing for 2010. Mauer is entering his magical age-27 season, but he's also coming off a campaign in which he established career highs in hits, homers, RBIs, average, OBP and slugging percentage. It's irrational to expect improvement in 2010. Those selecting Mauer at his current Mock Draft Central ADP (13.9) are clearly expecting him to remain healthy and to hold last year's gains, with only modest regression. Anyone bidding $42 is expecting the same.

But despite having been an upper-tier catcher over multiple seasons, Mauer had never delivered first-round value until 2009. Few catchers ever have. In the fantasy era, it's basically just Piazza and Pudge. (Javy Lopez(notes) gave it a run in 2003). Catching is the most physically stressful everyday role in baseball, and anyone playing the position should be considered an injury risk. Mauer himself has spent 60 days on the DL over the past three seasons. Historically, catcher is just a terrible place to park auction dollars, and it's a risky place to spend early picks. Scroll through the past decade of player ratings at Baseball Monster and add up all the catchers who've delivered first or second-round stats; it won't take you long. The position does not typically return a profit – even a small profit – at the high end.

(Bonus reading: There's a short essay called "Drafting Catchers" in the 2010 Baseball Forecaster that offers additional supporting evidence. We won't quote it because they don't give away the product, but you're encouraged to pick up the book).

Another concern with Mauer is the likelihood that he'll retain last season's power. He reached an entirely new home run plateau last season, more than doubling his previous career high. From 2005 to 2008, Mauer only reached double-digit homers once. None of his batted-ball rates changed significantly last year – he continued to be a groundball/line-drive machine (47.8 GB percentage, 22.6 LD) – but suddenly 20.4 percent of his flyballs cleared the fence. Oddly enough, 16 of Mauer's 28 homers were opposite-field shots. That's not a bad thing – they all count – though it's hardly traditional.

Scouts have always projected a home run spike from Mauer, so it's not as if the binge of '09 came without warning. His career HR/FB rate was only 8.9 percent entering the season, however, yet he finished 11th overall in HR/FB last year, just behind Adam Dunn(notes) (21.1) and ahead of Pujols (20.1). If Mauer is going to settle into their power-hitting tier – and this, of course, is key to the preservation of his '09 fantasy value – then he'll need to remain a curious slugging outlier.

For obvious reasons, you don't find many groundball/line-drive types among the home run leaders. Of the 20 qualifying players who posted HR/FB rates above 18.0 percent in 2009, Mauer had by far the lowest flyball percentage (29.5). He didn't put the ball in the air particularly often, but when he did, it left the park. That's a tricky habit to maintain. Mauer has already established himself among the best hitting catchers of all time, though, so we can't dismiss the possibility that he'll continue to be an exception to various rules. But if he were any other player, you'd say his homer total was much more likely to fall to 15 than surge to 30.

The most important variable affecting Mauer's performance in 2010 is the one about which we know the least: Target Field, the Twins' new home park.

The temperature-controlled Metrodome was the eighth most homer-friendly stadium in baseball in 2009. Target Field is an outdoor venue, and Minneapolis itself is definitely not temperature-controlled. This is no small concern. Minnesota's home opener will be held on April 12, when the average high is 55 degrees and the average low is 35. There are going to be a few uncomfortable days (and some viciously uncomfortable nights) in the new stadium.

Let's not simply write the place off as a pitcher's park, however. If you'll please review these stadium diagrams, you'll notice that Target's dimensions appear to be cozy when compared to the Metrodome, and there's very little foul territory. Without knowing a thing about the wind patterns or field conditions, you'd have to say that the place is at least shaped like a hitter-friendly park. Target Field opens at the south end in right field (pictured), and the prevailing direction of the breeze could either assist or doom left-handed power.

Minnesota's front office likely knows something about how the new stadium will play, and the reported pursuit of Jim Thome perhaps suggests that Target Field will accommodate lefty sluggers well. The Twins have no interest in catering to fantasy owners, though, so we'll have to wait for data to accumulate before judging the park. And again, Mauer was an opposite-field monster last year. If there's any significant right-field wind effect at Target, it won't impact Mauer in the same way that it will impact, say, Justin Morneau(notes).

Still, given the position, power and park-related uncertainty surrounding Mauer, it's impossible for many of us to endorse a $35+ bid. We'll pass. He's all yours. Scarcity enthusiasts are everywhere, so someone will drive up the price in most leagues (even though they can save a few fake dollars and acquire McCann, or invest in a reclamation project like Soto). In snake-drafts, Mauer will go near the turn at the end of the first round, alongside Longoria, Lincecum, Crawford, Wright and Kinsler. If that feels right to you, let's see a spirited defense in comments.

There's no need to settle the Mauer debate now, in January. We've got time to rank and re-rank. Don't feel that you have to commit to anything, though you're free to share your preliminary position below.

Best argument wins a bucket of honey-glazed walleye on sticks


Photos via Getty and AP Images

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