Each one of Joe Mauer’s nearly 8,000 career plate appearances has come in a Minnesota Twins uniform. The St. Paul native has said in the past in stating that he can’t see himself playing anywhere other than Minnesota if he’s to continue his career beyond the 2018 campaign — the final season of a franchise-record eight-year, $184MM contract. But while Mauer has previously said he’d like to continue playing, he took a more cautious approach in speaking with La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune yesterday.
“There’s a lot [more] that goes into it than just, ‘Do you want to play?” Mauer replied when asked about continuing his career. “There’s a lot of different dynamics that go into it. I owe it to myself and my family to sit down and think about those things.”
Specifically, the 35-year-old Mauer goes on to cite yet another concussion that he suffered when making a diving attempt at a foul ball behind first base this past May, as well as the expected arrival of his third child this coming November. Mauer was well on his way to becoming one of the the best-hitting catchers in Major League history (and still can be considered as such, albeit over a shorter period than many expected) when a long-running series of concussions forced him out from behind the plate and began a decline in his offensive output.
To his credit, Mauer may have performed a bit better than some would expect since changing positions. He’s posted slightly above-average overall numbers at the plate (.276/.358/.387; 104 OPS+), including a particularly solid .305/.384/.417 slash last season. There’s no dodging the fact, though, that his bat hasn’t produced at anywhere near its once-elite levels. And while he quickly became a strong defensive first baseman, that decline in offense is all the more glaring when considering the manner in which he moved down the defensive spectrum from catcher to first base.
None of that is to suggest that Mauer can’t still provide some value to the 2019 Twins (or, in the event of a dramatic shift in thinking, to another team). He’s turned in 10.3 wins above replacement from 2014-18, per Baseball-Reference (6.3, per Fangraphs). He’s also still a solid source of on-base percentage who rarely strikes out and is known for making opposing pitchers work (4.19 pitches per appearance — 14th-best in the Majors). That said, if he were to return for a 16th big league season, it would assuredly be at a significantly reduced rate.
As for whether the Twins’ front office would want him back, both chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine expressed to Neal that they’re open to bringing the former No. 1 overall pick back in 2019.
“If he came with us with the question you posed, ‘I’d like to play another season, what does that look like?’ I think we’re rolling up our sleeves and having a conversation with him,” said Levine. Falvey added that Mauer has “earned the right to have that conversation at his own pace” and that the team “fully supports” Mauer’s preference to make that an offseason decision rather than one they’ll discuss in September.
In the event that Mauer does decide to hang things up, the Twins will have some internal options to replace him. Logan Morrison’s $8MM mutual option will presumably be bought out following an injury-ruined season, but Tyler Austin has performed reasonably well since being traded over from the Yankees (.243/.313/.541 through 83 PAs). Miguel Sano has experience at first base and is likely better suited in the long run playing there than at third base. The free-agent market offers some potential platoon partners for Austin (e.g. Matt Adams), and the trade market, too, will present numerous options.
All of that cart-before-horse talk should be put on hold, however, as Mauer’s ultimate decision will undoubtedly impact the manner in which Falvey, Levine and the rest of the front office go about constructing a 2019 roster they hope can atone for a disappointing 2018 campaign in Minneapolis.