There isn't the right superlative, or set of superlatives to accurately describe the potential (nay, the actual, real time) greatness of Joe Mauer. He catches. He has incredible discipline (plate and life). The nebulously archaic idea of a player's batting average be damned, in his relatively short career he has already won three titles that relate directly in some way, shape, and (or) form to the aforementioned (and oft maligned) statistic. The problem with Joe Mauer isn't his bat though. His bat is fine. His bat is good. It it is positively Wonder Boyian. It is Wonder Boyish (just like his good looks and the way he plays the game). The problem, the real issue, is that Joe Mauer seems to be falling apart.
Though a tad dated, the following excerpt, from the always excerpt worthy Will Carroll, speaks volumes:
Things continue to be very confusing with Mauer. The Twins let head trainer Rick McWane speak to the press, but he didn't clear anything up. In the same conversation, McWane said that Mauer left spring training "unready to handle catching" and was "feeling the best he had felt." That's a conflict that, unless we assume McWane is setting up a push by the Twins to pry the catcher's mitt off Mauer, doesn't make any sense. It's reasonable that Mauer's lack of work in the spring left him feeling good, but it's less clear why a player with Mauer's experience would think he was ready. Did Mauer push the team to let him start the season? That's one possible explanation that sources I spoke with couldn't shoot down.
"He's a catcher, he says, and the Twins aren't doing anything to convince him otherwise, though I don't think they want to," one insider told me.
This means that the Twins -- and the Twins medical staff -- put Mauer in a position where they knew he was unlikely to succeed. Mauer is about a week away from a rehab assignment that, it's assumed, will focus on his catching as much as it will getting him live at-bats. We have to assume that the check on his SI joint and on his surgically-repaired knee came back well and now he just has to get into baseball shape. It's simply a wonder how they let him do that before, which opens the doors to questions about how they'll decide he's ready this time around.
It is easy to look at such decisions and second guess. It is even easier when you step back and take the contract into account. Joe Mauer signed a $184 million, eight-year contract extension last year. Even with the insane risk, the deal seemed understandable. It was a feel good deal. It was the antithesis of The Decision to End All Decisions. It is easy to look back and scoff, but is the scoffing warranted?
When Joe Mauer signed his contract, he was coming off consecutive years in which he was worth (according to WAR, when magically converted into dollar value) somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million. Even last year, with a dip in power, he "earned" his contract. It is also incredibly difficult to weigh the value of catcher defense. By all accounts, we can probably surmise that Mauer is on the side of good when it comes to defensive prowess, but a creaky body will do a lot to hurt a reputation.
What are we to learn? I'm not sure. It does feel like Mauer will be a perennial breaker downer. Will Joe Mauer be worth his contract if he only plays 120 games a year? Maybe for a time. Is it a risk the Twins needed to take? Probably not, but it felt good and it wasn't our money. It felt like the right decision, even if it it probably wasn't.