Phase one: The perfect storm
When Joe Mauer was 26, he was a thought exercise, a hypothetical scenario. How much is that guy going to get paid? He won the MVP, leading the A.L. in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He was a Gold Glove catcher. Seriously, how much is that guy going to get paid?
He was the perfect player. If you've thought about Mike Trout's eventual contract, you would have loved mulling over the possibilities for Mauer back in 2009. The Yankees were still the financial bogeymen back then. They were going to sign Mauer for a million billion dollars, give or take.
Phase two: The contract
But he was a Minnesota kid, born and bred, and he wanted to stay with the Twins. It's hard to call an eight-year, $184 million contract a hometown discount, but there was a good chance another team was going to pay him more. He wanted to stay with the Twins. Good for him, most of us said.
It was a substantial, crazy contract, especially for a team like the Twins that wasn't used to spending quite like that. But if the Twins aren't going to keep a local kid, an MVP who'd been the first-overall pick in the draft, someone who's just about the perfect player, why try at all?
The Twins didn't want to see Mauer on the Yankees. They didn't want to be the team that couldn't keep the kind of player a scientist would create for them in a lab.
Phase three: Oh no no no no no
There was a period, after Barry Zito and before Albert Pujols, where Mauer's contract was arguably the worst in the game. If not the worst, certainly the most cumbersome and unfortunate. He was 28 and hurt. His power was gone, sapped by injuries. He was Jason Kendall, and in seven years, he was going to sign three consecutive one-year deals with the Royals, hitting .250/.330/.330 for the rest of his life.
Mauer was still owed $151 million, and he was an oft-injured catcher without any power who probably wasn't going to stay at catcher. He was a thought exercise again, but in the wrong way. Would you package Miguel Sano to get rid of Mauer's contract? If he didn't have the worst contract in baseball, he was close.
Phase four: Out of the ashes
That would be present day. Turns out Mauer is still good, and he can still hit. He's not going to catch anymore, so he's not exactly the perfect player he once was, but he can still hit enough for a first baseman. Andrew McCutchen is the only other player with 500 plate appearances over the last two years and OBPs over .400. Mauer's homers might not be exciting, but he hits enough doubles (and for enough average) to make up for it.
He would have been the second-best hitter on the market this offseason, and that might sell him short. Robinson Cano has a 146 OPS+ over the last two years. Mauer's at 142. Now, the positional switch for Mauer is a big deal, and Cano is more likely to be the more valuable player in the future, but as a hitter, Mauer would have been one of the best options this winter.
Which brings us to the whole point of the article: What would Mauer get if he were a free agent today? He's not Pujols or Josh Hamilton, a bad contract that's just getting worse. Mauer's still excellent. It's just a different kind of excellent. So what would he get in the new, television-money-fueled free agency of today?
He's owed $115 million for the next five years. That's … not too far from what he'd get now, I'd guess. After all the disappointment, all the ups and downs, all the switches and perception changes, Mauer would still get (over)paid today. He probably wouldn't get that much. Consider, though, that Jacoby Ellsbury is a year older, with a similarly sketchy injury history, and he blew past the total value of what Mauer has left. Yes, Ellsbury can still play center, but that shouldn't be a $38 million difference.
The annual value is what wouldn't happen again for Mauer. Even in the Dodger-drunk present, a low-power first baseman isn't getting $23 million a year, even if he's still an All-Star hitter.
I'll guess six years, $101 million. The team? I'd like to think it would be the Reds, just to troll the people who complain about Joey Votto walking too much. But of all the teams looking for a first baseman this offseason, I'll guess the Rangers would have preferred that deal to absorbing Prince Fielder and dealing Ian Kinsler. And Mauer in Arlington would have been fun to watch.
In this alternate reality, Prince Fielder went to the Marlins for Steve Cishek, by the way. And Ian Kinsler would be in Korea. Everything would have been more fun. Thanks for nothing, Mauer.