So, yeah, Joe “Hometown Discount” Mauer did not get claimed off of the waiver wire. Shocker. Mauer is having a nice season after a miserable 2011. A .312/.405/.431 (134 wRC+) line is excellent for a catcher. It is very good for a player at any position. Unfortunately, Mauer is only about a half-time catcher these days, splitting time at first base and designated hitter. Combined with the money left on his contract (after this season, $138 million through 2018), he simply does not offer attractive value.
The Twins are awful this year, and as they rebuild, one of the many obstacles they face is the Mauer contract. It is a problem, but is in insurmountable? Not necessarily. The path of Todd Helton and the Colorado Rockies offers a (somewhat) reassuring reminder that these things can be worked around.
This may seem like an odd exercise to conduct, given my less-than-enthusiastic comments on Dan O’Dowd’s (the since-demoted general mananger of the Rockies) recent work. However, whatever his recent fortunes and poor decisions, O’Dowd did manage to put together a team that went to the playoffs two out of three years, and had a winning record three out of four. The main point here is not to evaluate O’Dowd generally as a general manager, but to see how the Rockies managed to do this despite a pretty huge albatross contract on their hands.
That contract was Todd Helton’s. Way back in 1995, the Rockies had the eighth pick in the draft by dint of their poor 1994 season (of course, they actually made it to the playoffs in 1995, their third year of existence, but that’s another story), and picked University of Tennesee quarterback, closer, and, oh, yes, hitter Todd Helton. By 1998, Helton was in the majors full-time and producing well, even after adjusting for pre-humidor Coors. The Rockies bought out four of Helton’s pre-arbitration years after that season for $12 million — not bad even at the time. Helton delivered in spades. In 1999 he mananged a 121 wRC+ (that’s “all” a .320/.395/.587 line came to in the early Colorado years), which was nice.
Then came 2000, and the 26-year-old Helton put up a monstrous .372/.463/.698 (161 wRC+) season with 42 home runs and 8.6 fWAR. The Rockies did not wait, and, whether or not they could afford to do so, they did not. In March 2001, they signed Helton to what was, at the time, an utterly huge contract for a first baseman: nine years and $141.5 guaranteed (there was also a player opt-out, but that was a risk on the club side), starting in 2003, after his old contract expired.
Let’s pause and note the parallel with Joe Mauer. Mauer was a good player in his mid-20s who still had a couple of years left on his contract prior to a 2009 season. But the Twins felt like they had to act after that big “breakout” year, and so they signed him to an eight-year, $148 million contract that began after the old one ran out at the end of 2010.
Back to the Rockies and Helton: the first few years after the big contract was signed, he looked like gold, putting up legitimate superstar seasons every year through 2005. The problem was that the Rockies’ other big free agent signings from the period — especially $121 million pitcher Mike Hampton and $51.5 million pitcher Denny Neagle (yes, he got released because of personal conduct, but the Rockies ended up paying most of the rest of the contract in a settlement) — pretty much bombed. Larry Walker had one more great season in 2001, but was in his decline phase during the early years of the Helton contract. Other than random years from guys like Vinny Castilla and Preston Wilson (and a young Matt Holliday), the Rockies did not have much on the position player side, either. The Rockies never won more than 74 games in a season during Helton’s “superstar” years.
The problem was that they couldn’t really trade him, either. While Helton was still a good hitter, after 2004 and 2005 his home run power dropped quite a bit (this did not correlate with the installation of the humidor, which was done in 2002). Helton was just about the only good veteran left on the team, but as a first baseman in his early 30s and clearly on the decline, he simply did not have the kind of surplus value that would bring back much in a trade. So were the Rockies screwed?
Obviously not, since they made it to the World Series in 2007, Helton’s age 33 season (with years left on that contract). So how did they do it? There are a numbers of factors here, not all of which I can cover. Nor can it be reduced to a formula. But let’s just look at the best players on the 2007 Rockies according to fWAR.
Pitching had been and remained a problem for the Rockies, but they had made some adjustments. That can be exaggerated — the Rockies were often said to have great hitting and poor pitching, but this was usually asserted without paying attention to how their hitting was usually overrated and pitching underrated due to their park. However, in 2007 it was true. They had no “star” pitchers, but they had managed to get good production in 2006 and 2007 from guys like Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook, soft-tossers who still managed to give them above-average production. Both were home grown, with Francis being drafted in 2002, and Cook in 1997.
Their position players carried the team. First and foremost was the still-underrated Matt Holliday. Holliday was another player drafted out of college (Oklahoma State), and while he had been a good young player the previous few seasons, his seven-win season in 2007 was huge for the Rockies. The second-best player on the team was rookie shortstop (wait for it, Jays fans) Troy Tulowitzki, who had been drafted in 2005. The third-best player according to fWAR was, well, Todd Helton, who managed a four-win season. The power was not all that great anymore, but he still had good player discipline and could take a walk.
The Rockies’ other playoff team from 2009 was a different sort of beat. The Rockies had traded Matt Holliday with a year left for free agency since they knew they would not be able to re-sign him. They got a great return from Billy Beane (a trade worth revisiting at length from the A’s perspective), even if it was not a huge factor in 2009: Huston Street was a good, affordable closer for them for a few years, and Carlos Gonzalez was a useful role player for the team, if not the stud he is now. But on the position player side, 2009 Rockies were led by Tulowitzki having another six-win season, and then a bunch of role players, including OBP-machine Todd Helton and Seth Smith.
The 2009 squad thrived on pitching: Ubaldo Jimenez was the first legimate “ace” the Rockies had perhaps ever had, and he had been signed as an amateur free agent in 2001. Jason Marquis randomly had the best season of his career, but the Rockies also did well by buying low on Jason Hammel from the Rays, and he was good as a middle-of-the-rotation starter for Colorado.
There are other issues that could be discussed at length: the Rockies willingness to be creative in dumping the Hampton contract, for example. Figuring out how to make a pitching staff work at Coors (beyond just the Humidor) is also worth talking about. But I want to focus on two topics that I think might be relevant to the Twins as they try to rebuild around a good-but-seemingly-unmovable player.
First, the Rockies did quite well in developing their own players. I realize that this seems painfully obvious as important to every team in the league, but it still seems to be worth saying. After the disasters of Hampton and Neagle in addition to the big Helton contract, perhaps the Rockies simply could not afford big-time free agents. Whatever the cause, the good Rockies years were led by young players the Rockies drafted and developed themselves. It was not just studs like Tulowitzki, Holliday, and Jimenez, but also role players like Garrett Atkins, Clint Barmes, and Seth Smith. There were few, if any, big-time veterans brought in. Instead, the Rockies filled holes with deals for players like Jason Hammel.
Again, that formula, “develop from within, don’t overpay for veteran role players” may seem trite, but as the case of the Los Angeles teams and even the Michael Cuddyer deal for the Rockies this year shows, not every team seems intent on doing it. If both of the Los Angeles teams seem like a bad example given their revenues, one might look to the recent Twins, who spent time picking up options for guys like Cuddyer and trading away useful position players for relievers the last few years. It is not that the Twins have to have all rookies, but their “veteran card” is pretty much filled up by Mauer for the next few years.
The second point is that while Helton’s contract wasn’t exactly a bonus for the team in its last few years, Helton was at least useful. Let’s see, a guy without a ton of power or positional value who hits for a good average and gets on base, who does that sound like? I guess that sounds like Joe Mauer. This is not guarantee that Mauer will age as decently as Helton, and injuries and position make the issue cloudy. But good plate discipline and the ability to make contact are generally the sort of skills that help a hitter age well. Mauer’s superstar days are probably behind him, but he can still be a helpful part of his team as a very good (if expensive) player. Despite not having much trade value, he can still have a good deal of on-field value.
The Twins made a name for themselves in the first decade of the 21st-century by developing players from within and not having much money. They do not have a ton of money now (although with the new stadium and revenue sharing, they are not impoverished, either), but they do have at least one big, long-term contract they are not going to shed. Still, as the Rockies have shown, a team can sometimes win in that situation. The Twins need Mauer to keep being useful even if he is not the star his shampoo commercials would lead you to believe he is. They also need to focus on developing more Joe Mauers.