Minnesota and Mauer Facing Important 2018
Image courtesy of © Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsAt first base, Joe Mauer has reinvented himself on the diamond. Despite being an offensive juggernaut behind the dish, he was also more than adept with the glove. After the brain injury forced him into a new role, he very nearly grabbed his first Gold Glove at a new position a year ago (and deserved to win). That progression at first base has a four year arc now, and it’s worth speculating what’s to come in the year ahead.
Across just over 1,000 innings a season ago, Mauer posted career bests in DRS (7), UZR (7.1), RngR (3.9), and UZR/150 (9.1). He came in as better than virtually every first baseman not named Brandon Belt in all categories, and his 61.5% conversion rate on plays with an expected success rate of 10-40% paced MLB first basemen. In short, his 4th year was his best at the new position, and despite being 34 years-old, he didn’t appear to be slowing in the field.
When stepping into the batter’s box, things followed a similar narrative a year ago. His .801 OPS was a high water mark dating back to 2013, and the .305 AVG was the first time rising above that plateau since the same season. After dipping to a .267 AVG and .733 OPS over the past three seasons, Mauer had rebounded nicely.
Getting in 141 games for Paul Molitor last season, Mauer continued to be a cornerstone of a team that made a postseason run, and kept things interesting in the AL Central. He’s played at least 130 games each of the past three seasons, and has played 140 or more twice. It’s reasonable, and also visible, that Mauer is better with regular rest, but also not hard to see that he’s capable of producing on more than a rotational basis.
For 2018, there are a couple of reasons to dissect the notes above. In relation to his defense, a Gold Glove could go a long ways toward putting a final stamp on his Cooperstown resume. Mauer would be only the third player ever to win the award at two positions, and he’d be the first catcher to do so. The resume could also be bolstered by another high-average season, something that holds less weight in the game but has long been a hat-hanging opportunity for the Minnesota native.
Outside of personal gain, there’s also plenty to take away from where both the Twins and Joe go from here. On the last year of his 8yr./$184m. deal, both sides will have a decision to make prior to the 2019 season. For Mauer, it will come down to whether or not he wants to continue playing at the age of 36. Minnesota will be positioned to easily accommodate a short-term deal, at a significantly reduced rate, and the evaluation of how the player fits will likely determine the extent of the offer.
In the current competitive window, the season ahead should also help to paint a picture of how integral Mauer may be as the Twins look to dive deep into the postseason. Although Miguel Sano is probably destined for first base at some point, will the defensive downgrade be immediately worth transitioning to? Is Kennys Vargas going to be a part of the equation, or will Brent Rooker be given a look? Contingency plans will have to be evaluated as Mauer, whether returning or not, is in a position to begin the transition to his eventual replacement.
In short, the 2018 Twins have plenty of intrigue coming off of a season that saw them kick down the door to the winning ways that lie ahead. On an individual level however, Mauer may be among the most must monitored names in the 162 games that lie ahead. It’s been 14 years of watching what amounts to a living legend, and Minnesota fans may not see something as good as Mauer has been for quite some time. Keeping an eye on what indicators tell us is next will be can’t-miss viewing all season long.
No matter how the story ends, the chapters with Joe Mauer in a Minnesota Twins uniform have been a great read. If 2017 is any indicator, planning the epilogue right now may be a bit premature. Molitor and the 25-man need Joe, and if 2018 trends in the same direction as a year ago, Twins Territorians are in for a treat again.
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