Nick points out that only two catchers accumulated enough plate appearances last season to quality for the batting title and post an OPS over .700. "Joe Mauer was one of them, of course," Nick writes. "During his career, he's usually ranked as the best offensive catcher in the league, and he's also been one of the most durable. This is precisely what makes him so uniquely valuable."
But Mauer's injuries are taking a toll and he's missed most of 2011. Nick also points out that Mauer has traditionally worn down during the season, with his September slugging percentage the lowest of any month and his postseason numbers not strong -- one extra-base hit in 39 PAs.
The Twins face a difficult decision: Mauer's eight-year contract that pays him $23 million per season just kicked in this year. Mauer turned 28 in April, so the contract takes him through his age-35 season. It seems pretty clear, with his knee and leg injuries, that he won't last that long behind the plate.
So where would they move him? While you hear suggestions of moving Mauer to third base or the outfield, the fact is very few catchers have ever completed such a transition. Here's the list of players who have played at least 200 games at catcher and any position besides first base or designated hitter:
Second base: Craig Biggio Third base: Joe Torre, B.J. Surhoff Left field: Brian Downing, B.J. Surhoff, Elston Howard, Ed Kirkpatrick
Center field: Craig Biggio, Roger Bresnahan
Right field: Charlie Moore, Ed Kirkpatrick
Mauer lacks the speed that Biggio, Surhoff, Kirkpatrick and Bresnahan possessed, making it easier for them to change positions. Biggio and Surhoff were also moved off catcher early in their careers. Howard played some left field to get playing time with Yogi Berra behind the plate. The best comparisons are Downing, who the Angels moved to left field (he was OK out there) and then DH. Torre is probably the most comparable, as he was a big catcher (although, at 6-foot-2, not as big as Mauer) and moved to third base when he was 29. He lasted two-plus seasons at third before being moved over to first base. His fielding numbers at third weren't good. That alone doesn't necessarily mean Mauer couldn't handle the transition, although at 6-5 with questionable knees, I think he'd be pretty bad over there. Same goes with left field.
In the end, I think that leaves first base or DH as the likely position change for Mauer. And the problem there is seen in this chart, in which we compare Mauer's adjusted OPS ranking among catchers and among first basemen/DHs.
MORE VALUABLE BEHIND THE PLATE
Joe Mauer's yearly OPS and adjusted OPS totals, and the rank of his OPS+ among all catchers and first basemen/DH who qualified for the batting titles (502 plate appearances).
Rank among C
Rank among 1B/DH
Mauer is a $23 million catcher. But he's not a $23 million first baseman. Plus, the Twins have Justin Morneau signed through 2013. You can see why the Twins want to do everything they can to keep Mauer behind the plate. Unfortunately, the risk in doing that, as we're seeing this season, is that his value while he's on the disabled list is zero.