Lusting after Jason Bay is one thing, but the big prize on the free-agent market next winter could be even bigger — there's the possibility of Joe Mauer hitting the open market and commanding absurd amounts of money from the highest bidder. God only knows what kind of money could be shelled out for the Twins' catcher, one of the greatest pure hitters of his generation.
Mauer signed a four-year, $33 million contract extension with the Twins in February of 2007, steering clear of arbitration. He now has $12.5 million left on that deal, and he's worth much, much more.
There's no way to gauge the going rate for a 26-year-old who brings you elite offensive production (a .327 career average) at the catcher position. Quite simply, there's never been a free agent quite like Joe Mauer.
And maybe there never will be. When dealing with an unprecedented, unparalleled talent like Mauer, the best strategy is to lock him down long-term, as soon as possible, no matter what the price. Mauer might cost the Twins a lot now, but it'll cost them even more to lose him to Boston or New York. The open market is a scary proposition.
Unless the Twins have a death wish, re-signing Mauer should be a top priority for the Twins' front office this offseason. And according to MLB.com's Twins beat writer Kelly Thesier, it is.
Thesier writes that "the club is committed to getting a deal in place with Mauer," and that "the key will be structuring the deal so that they can continue to add talent around Mauer in the coming seasons to keep the club competitive, as he's made it clear that winning is high on his priority list."
Much like the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James, the Twins are privileged to have a homegrown native son leading their team. Mauer is Minnesota-born and bred, and it's important to him to see the Twins succeed. Mauer's likely to command a nine-figure megadeal, but he's going to give the Twins a head start.
Mauer has said that he's not in any hurry to get a deal done now. When he packed up his things and left the Metrodome after the Twins' first-round exit from the playoffs, his focus wasn't on a contract extension. It was on staying healthy and preparing for next season. He's had nagging back and hip pains all season, and he'd like to overcome his health difficulties and come back stronger in 2010.
And yet it's hard to stop thinking about 2011 and beyond.
Next winter will be a big one for catchers. Not just because of Mauer. It's also when the Red Sox' $7 million club option expires on Victor Martinez. The White Sox' three-year deal with A.J. Pierzynski will be up. The Yankees' Jorge Posada will be 39 and on the way out. We're due for a major realignment of the American League's elite backstops. Just imagine what would happen if Mauer joined that fracas.
It would be a buyer's market, to say the least. And the Twins don't want anyone buying Joe Mauer's services but themselves.
As this offseason gets under way, most baseball fans will have their eyes on the prized free agents of this offseason — on Bay, on Matt Holliday, on John Lackey. But it's next year's free agents that are just as important. The Twins' quest to extend Mauer will be one of the best story lines of this winter.
And if the Twins can't get a deal done, this story will only get bigger. The Red Sox and Yankees are already salivating.
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