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Monday, December 17, 2012
Time to appreciate Joe Mauer

By Bill Baer

Did you know that, since 2006, Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer has accrued the sixth-most Wins Above Replacement among all major leaguers? With most of the conversations these days revolving around free-agent signings and the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot, it is easy to lose sight of some of the other great talent we have been watching on an everyday basis. Mauer is one of those underappreciated players. It's time to change that.

The pinnacle of Mauer's career came in 2009. At the age of 26, the catcher led the American League in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage en route to earning the AL MVP award nearly unanimously, save for a stray, undeserved first-place vote for Miguel Cabrera. He finished with an adjusted OPS of 171, becoming the second catcher to cross the 170 plateau after Mike Piazza did it twice in 1995 (172) and 1997 (185).

Just before the 2010 season started, the Twins signed Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract extension, the most expensive contract ever given to a catcher and the fourth richest at the time of signing. In rewarding their catcher for his tremendous campaign the year prior, the Twins ensured that Mauer would stay in Minnesota -- his home state -- through 2018, his age-35 season. It was a risky move, but one that the Twins had to make as Mauer was a historically rare talent and a massive fan favorite. It would have been unforgivable to let him head into free agency.

Since then, Mauer performed well in two of the three seasons, finishing with a 140 adjusted OPS in 2010 and 141 last season (100 is average). His 2011 season was, unfortunately, marred by a leg injury that forced him onto the 60-day disabled list. Despite lacking power in 333 plate appearances, Mauer still posted above-average numbers, particularly so if you compare him to other catchers. He ended any concern about a permanent loss of ability last season, starting 144 games, posting a .319 average and a league-leading .416 OBP while regaining some of his lost power.

Mauer has led the American League in batting average three times, while finishing over .300 in five of seven seasons in which he has had at least 400 plate appearances. His career .405 on-base percentage is the fifth-best among active players and makes him one of only two catchers to take at least 3,000 trips to the plate with an OBP over .400, the other being Mickey Cochrane, who played in the 1920s and '30s.

As he stands now, not yet 30 years old, he has a 37 career WAR (per Baseball-Reference). Among catchers enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Mauer currently ranks ahead of Roy Campanella, Rick Ferrell and Ray Schalk. He isn't far behind Roger Bresnahan or Ernie Lombardi. If Mauer can stay healthy and productive through the end of his current contract (a very big if), he very well could be a lock for enshrinement in Cooperstown.

What's in store for Mauer in 2013? Now that he has some power back, you can expect around 10 home runs, an OBP over .400 and great defense and game calling behind the dish. The Twins may not yet be ready to contend for the AL Central title, but having acquired pitching prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May, as well as established starter Vance Worley, the Twins could find themselves back in the mix relatively soon. With Mauer signed through 2018, the Twins are free to focus all of their attention on other positions to build around their homegrown catcher.

Elite catchers are one of baseball's rare luxuries, one that two recent World Series champions have enjoyed in Buster Posey with the Giants and Yadier Molina with the Cardinals. With the right approach to the coming years, the Twins hope to find themselves on that list as well.