I don't care what anybody else says, Joe Mauer is a top-10 fantasy player. Not only hitter, but also player.
And to be honest, with David Wright sitting at eight homers for this season, A-Rod hitting .256, Jose Reyes having an injury-plagued season and the first-base elite having taken another step forward -- five of them are among my top 15 hitters, and that doesn't even include Ryan Howard or Joey Votto -- I'd be awfully tempted to take Mauer in the top five in next year's draft.
Few people agree, and one of them is my fellow Hit Parade writer, AJ Mass, who moved Mauer from 11th to 30th in the hitter rankings when replacing me July 9. AJ was a lot more agreeable a few weeks ago while writing the Parade; he ranked him 15th. But I have him eighth, and like I said, I have to hold myself back from putting him even higher.
I've heard many explanations why Mauer isn't a top-10 player but none that really had any mustard to it. Don't get me wrong, I had to be convinced just like everyone else. I was afraid the back/kidney injury would linger. There's a risk because he's a catcher. Maybe the power arrived too soon. But I'm sold now, and it's mid-August, so we're not talking about a small sample size here.
Lemme put it to you this way. Scouts, coaches and, well, anybody who saw this guy play in his early years admitted very quickly he would be a beast when he hit his prime. Once he'd fill out, develop some power, get used to playing 162 games, get a little more consistent at the plate that's what they'd say. And those facets have been steadily improving since he arrived in the league. So why is what he's doing now so shocking? Sure, maybe his performance is a little better than anyone could have expected, but still, we expected him to be a beast, and he is. He's an offensive machine, just as the scouting reports said he had the potential to be. Isn't it refreshing when a player who has all-world talent actually lives up to it?
So why isn't everyone sold on him? Is it the injuries? Well, he injured his left knee in his second big league game in 2004 and eventually had surgery to repair a meniscus tear in that knee, limiting him to 35 games that season. He bounced back to play a full season in 2005, and although he suffered several nicks, he also stole 13 bases, a sign that his knee was feeling better. The only other season when he had true injury troubles before this season was in 2007, the biggest injury being a left quad strain. Neither meniscal tears nor quad strains are said to be chronic injuries, and Mauer had played in 140-plus games in two of his previous three seasons.
And then this kidney problem cropped up during the winter, and then a back injury, perhaps related, in spring training. The Twins were cautious with him, but he returned May 1 with no ill effects. How many games has he missed since then? Three. Sure, he has had four games in which he has only pinch hit, and he plays only DH now and then, but he has started every game since July 20 and played in every game since June 18. That doesn't sound like a guy who's an injury risk or not playing at 100 percent.
Listen, the guy is the present and future of the Twins and a hometown favorite. You think they'll play him, and keep playing him everyday, if there's a risk for injury? He's young enough to have bounced back from those nonchronic injuries without any problem, and he's healthy now. That's all that matters to us.
OK, then we go to the power. When Mauer arrived in the bigs, he was lean and lanky. He was also 21 years old and hadn't filled out completely. He since has filled out to the tune of 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. At age 26, he's hitting his physical peak and doing nothing this year that he hasn't done in past years. It's just that now the ball is leaving the park. According to Baseball Reference, Mauer has not pulled a single home run this season. Fifteen of his 25 homers have been hit to center field, and 10 of them have gone to the opposite field.
He's. Just. Stronger. And from a physical freak who has tremendous hand speed and great pitch recognition and, most importantly, is 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, is that so surprising? Sure, he has had a line-drive, ground-ball swing for much of his career, but even line-drive hitters can get the ball up, and clearly when Mauer does, he has the power to knock it out. He has homered in seven different ballparks this season and hit almost as many of them on the road as at home. He's looking for his pitch early in the count -- 20 of his 25 homers have been hit when he has zero or one strike -- and he's not missing it. He's also striking out more than last season and walking less, which shows he's being more aggressive. As long as his batting average doesn't suffer as a result
But that batting average, it's sky-high. Too sky-high? Well, yes, and we shouldn't expect him to keep hitting .380. Then again, his batting average on balls in play, although high at .385, is only 20 points higher than it was three years ago when his overall batting average was .347. And he's still hitting plenty of line drives and ground balls (69 percent of his at-bats have resulted in such) despite all the homers. A .380 hitter? Nah, but .340 to .350, yeah.
OK, so maybe there's concern about the wear of catching. Well, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has done an excellent job of keeping him fresh while also keeping him in the lineup. Mauer has played 19 games at DH, pinch hit in four games and played catcher no more than six consecutive games. And he has caught in six straight games only twice this season. That sounds no more than any other starting catcher to us, outside the DH appearances, which probably are a nice respite for him.
And finally, there's the whole matter that he plays the weakest position in fantasy baseball. It's a position that in many leagues still starts two players. A position that has gotten even weaker because of down seasons from Russell Martin, Geovany Soto and Ryan Doumit (also injured), among others. A position that will lose Brandon Inge (and Pablo Sandoval, if you could start him there) next year. Yes, catcher is a dearth for owners. No player but Mauer and Inge has more than 18 homers, and nobody has even double-digit steals. Despite missing the first month of the season, Mauer ranks seventh on our 2009 Player Rater. No other catcher ranks in the top 100, and only one catcher (Victor Martinez) ranks in the top 180.
I'll put it this way: Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Niemann and Matt Thornton rank higher than the third-best catcher on our '09 Player Rater. So if you pass up Mauer in the first round to grab, say, Mark Teixeira (whom I do love as a fantasy option, by the way), you basically miss out on getting the only player in probably the first two tiers at his position to grab a player who is one of several in the top tier at his position. Just saying.
I could go on. I mean, there's the matter of his solid lineup support in Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, as well as the emerging Denard Span and improved Michael Cuddyer. And he steals the occasional base. His contract is due up at the end of next season, so we could be watching a salary drive. But I've said enough. I'm convinced he's a top-10 option and now maybe you are, too.
Andre Ethier, OF, Dodgers: He's at it again, tearing up the league to finish this season. Ethier is batting .376 since the All-Star break and .380 in August, and I'm starting to think these hot second halves will become a trend. I was asked in my Tuesday chat whether I'd rather have Manny Ramirez or Ethier. I took a quick look at their numbers and peripherals and stuck with the mainstream answer of Manny. It was closer than I thought, but one thing separates them: consistency. Manny hits everywhere, against all pitchers, at any time of the day and in any month. Ethier is prone to extremely hot streaks followed by cold spells, and hidden in his numbers is that he's actually hitting .250 with only seven of his 24 homers and 29 of his 81 RBIs on the road. Plus, he's hitting only .203 against lefties. Give me consistency in my top outfielders any day.
Howie Kendrick, 2B, Angels: Like many of you, I've always been a big fan of Kendrick. Now that he's quietly erasing his horrible first half with a .373 average since the All-Star break, I'll probably chuck him right into "sleeper status" again next season. I guess I'm a fish. What I like most is he's on pace for career highs (albeit modest numbers) in homers and steals.
Willy Taveras, OF, Reds: So let's see here, Taveras is on the DL with a quad strain, and his replacement is a top prospect who has similar skills and is nearly assured of posting a higher OBP than Taveras. And the Reds will be playing for the future as of about right now. Manager Dusty Baker said call-up Drew Stubbs will get plenty of playing time with Taveras out, and I have to believe that if he performs even adequately, Taveras will lose his starting job.
Hideki Matsui, OF, Yankees: He's back, and he's hitting, but Matsui's knees have gotten progressively worse the past several seasons. He's at the point where he has to get fluid drained from his left knee on occasion just to play. Not good, and I fear once Brett Gardner returns from his thumb injury, if the Yanks set it on cruise control in September, Matsui will slide into a part-time role. Enjoy what the production you're getting now because you might not get it much longer.
Pickups of the week
Mixed: Travis Snider, OF, Blue Jays. Several good options to choose from this week (Julio Borbon?), but Snider is the most obvious. He's back with the Jays and has been told he'll play regularly, and he tore up Triple-A (.337-14 home runs-40 RBIs in 48 games). He's owned in just 8.1 percent of ESPN.com standard leagues.
AL-only: Josh Wilson, SS, Mariners. Worth a look at least as long as Jack Wilson's hamstring keeps him out.
NL-only: Reid Gorecki, OF, Braves. Should get a little playing time with Nate McLouth out, and has decent speed.
5x5 watch: Stolen bases
Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates: We have yet to see fully what McCutchen can do on the base paths. The kid has amazing speed but just 12 steals since being called up. That's not bad, but Pittsburgh manager John Russell said recently the youngster has been getting a lot of attention on the base paths and is still just feeling his way out. He'll eventually be more aggressive, and I think it'll happen soon. The buzz words I'm hearing about how he's learning pitchers' tendencies and such is similar to what I heard with Elvis Andrus, who stole just six bases in April and May combined but has stolen 17 since. Once McCutchen's trial period ends, his steals should take off.
Carlos Guillen, Tigers: The acquisition of Aubrey Huff might have saved Guillen's value for 2010. Guillen was playing DH and hadn't played in the outfield since early May, but the Huff trade has pushed Guillen back to left field (where Marcus Thames and others were bumped). He now has 14 games there and should gain qualification to keep him from being just a DH next season. More importantly, he's healthy again and batting third (at least as of the past two games) for the Tigers.
Speaking of the Huff trade, Comerica Park traditionally has not been a good place for lefties to hit homers. It's better than the Bobby Higginson days, but still not good, and Huff has hit just .258 there (he's a .284 career hitter) in his career. But at least he is out of the AL East; he was hitting just .200 against AL East opponents this season. On the flip side, it gets Ty Wigginton (.298 against opposing AL East pitchers) in the lineup for the O's.
On the docket
Texas Rangers: The Rangers have hit 31 percentage points better and scored 114 more runs at home than on the road which makes their upcoming road trip a bit unfortunate for fantasy owners. Beginning Friday, the Rangers play 15 of their next 19 games on the road.
Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies: Gonzalez is movin' on up, and not coincidentally, it has corresponded with his rise in the Rockies' lineup. He was playing sporadically -- and hitting seventh or eighth in the lineup when he did play -- before settling into the No. 2 slot on Aug. 7. And he even has hit leadoff the past two games. Normally a move or two in the lineup doesn't make sense, but moving to the top of the Rockies' lineup, and in front of such guys as Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki and Brad Hawpe, is sure to pay dividends.
On the farm
Jordan Schafer, OF, Braves: Potentially more bad news for Schafer, who slumped his way to a .204 average before the Braves sent him down June 2. He has missed more than a month for Triple-A Gwinnett because of a strained tendon in his wrist, and if his bid to return hits any setback this week or next, he might need surgery on the joint. Surgery would require three months of rehab and might even hinder his availability for 2010. Either way, let's just say, between the injury and his '09 play, his 2010 value isn't very high in my book.
This week's draft-pick signings: I know a lot of you, like me, play in AL-only or NL-only (or just deep mixed) leagues that include minor leaguers. After all, that's why we discuss minor leaguers all over our site. Well, here are a few hitters I like who have signed in the past week and thus warrant tracking or even a pickup: Grant Green, SS, A's; Dustin Ackley, 1B/OF, Mariners; Donavan Tate, OF, Padres; Kentrail Davis, OF, Brewers.
Remember that in late August and September, a good one-third (or more) of the teams in most leagues set their teams on autopilot or quit following them altogether. So even if you're tempted to, don't give up so quickly if you're in the middle of the pack. Although you'd think you couldn't gain as much ground in September, remember that dead teams could sink in certain categories just as fast as you gain in them. Not that any of you were planning on "giving up," but consider this your motivational speech to keep plugging away.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.