Image courtesy of Dan Hamilton, USA TodayLet's start with Joe Mauer.
Mauer has been climbing toward the top of franchise record books this season. Most recently, he became the third Twin ever to reach 1,000 runs scored, days after passing Rod Carew for second on the all-time hits list.
As the 35-year-old checks off these estimable accomplishments, it's easy to get caught up in the nostalgia of his former greatness. But the truth is that Mauer hasn't been a great player in five years. The closest he came was last year – a genuinely solid season – but in 2018 he has returned to the same mediocre rate of production that's been customary since his move to first base.
Watching him play, one can't be blamed for exaggerating Mauer's impact. He has legitimately been one of the best clutch performers in baseball this year. Almost every hit he collects these days seems to knock out another milestone. Plus, there's the exemplary plate approach, and the sterling defense.
But from an objective standpoint, Mauer just hasn't been much of a difference-maker. At all. Both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference have him pegged at less than one win above replacement level. His .729 OPS ranks 111th in the majors. His raw strength, never a true asset, is clearly diminishing – Mauer has gone long stretches of this season with absolutely no power output. His middling walk rate doesn't make up for the lack of bat.
Other than wishful thinking, I'm not sure what'd make anyone expect this to change for the better in 2019. Realistically it seems far more likely he'll lose a little more bat speed, and a little more reaction time. Mauer is not a net negative to the team right now but he isn't far off, and there will be ample opportunity to find a significant upgrade during the offseason.
Yet, so many people are deferring to Mauer completely on this decision. I've seen it from fans and media. I've seen it (more understandably) from coaches and teammates. If Joe wants to come back, and will accept a reasonable contract, he's back – so goes the prevailing wisdom. Conspicuously, it's not a stance that has been openly taken by Derek Falvey or Thad Levine.
Personally, if he'll come back on a low-cost one-year deal, and is open to a more limited role, I'm not opposed to Mauer coming back. But his well-earned status shouldn't dictate the club's path. Why do so many otherwise logical folks feel it should?
Now, as for Byron Buxton.
I laid out my feelings regarding the Buxton situation two weeks ago when he came off the disabled list at Triple A. But he became a topic of discussion again on Wednesday night when Paul Molitor stated that a decision hasn't yet been made regarding his fate for September.
My thought when he was activated was that Buxton should be able to earn his way back up. Has he? Well, he's been hitting for a ton of power at Rochester, with nine extra-base hits and a .659 in 10 games. It's absolutely been his best burst of offense all year.
But he also has drawn one walk in 46 plate appearances, with 10 strikeouts. And when talking to reporters, Molitor notably pointed out that Buxton's been "pulling the ball at a high rate." That hasn't always been a great indicator for him in the past.
Buck's results are obviously back where the Twins want them; one wonders about the process.
Again, it can't be overstated how valuable that extra year of service time will be in 2022, when Buxton is 28 (for relevant perspective, Aaron Hicks is 28 now). Whether the front office is running out the string on his service clock, or engaging in extension negotiations, or discussing trades with another team – from any perspective, it's just really key.
So I can see why this is a much trickier equation than some make it out to be. Especially when you consider the inherent questions around Buxton's health (which would seemingly benefit from an extra month's rest tacked onto his offseason), and the lack of available playing time in the Twins outfield.
When asked, Falvey said they're not factoring Buxton's team control into their thinking (what else are ya gonna say), but the truth is that even negating that, there's still a case for holding off – albeit a slightly weaker one if his average is still close to .400 in a week.
I'm happy not to be the one making the call.
The fan in me wants to see Buxton in September and Mauer in 2019. But the more analytical side, thinking strategically and strictly for the good of the team, feels more conflicted – especially with regard to Mauer.
When Falvey and Levine were brought aboard, the hope among so many of us was that they'd be guided less by sentimentality, and more by data, logic, shrewd reason.
Because of this, I'm a little surprised by the unpopularity of either scenario – opting to part ways with Mauer this offseason, or leave Buxton out this September – even among people I almost always find myself in agreement with.
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