Mauer’s Freedom to Go Means Freedom to Stay

published March 25, 2010

Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays, Warren Spahn, Lefty Gomez, Billy Williams, Juan Marichal, Ralph Kiner.

What do these Hall of Famers have in common?

They were all sold or traded near the end of their careers.  All but one of them played their last games in unfamiliar uniforms rather than the ones in which they earned their fame.

Jackie Robinson could not imagine playing for the hated New York Giants, who had acquired him in a trade with the Brooklyn Dodgers, so he retired before the 1957 season.  That was a player’s only option if he was traded or sold in the days before free agency.

It’s a problem Joe Mauer probably isn’t going to face.

Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million deal with the Twins represents an aspect of free agency that is often overlooked by players as well as by owners, agents, and fans: the freedom to leave also means the freedom to choose to stay.

“I always wanted to stay here,” Mauer said at his press conference, “that was my main goal.  I want to stay here and I want to win here.”

It’s where he’s always wanted to be, growing up in St. Paul and being drafted out of high school by the Twins with the first pick in 2001.  He became the big club’s starting catcher when he was 22, and led the American League in batting with a .347 average the next year – the first catcher ever to do so.  Scouts who saw his large frame believed he’d develop power as he matured, and their views were justified last year when he hit 28 homers, led the AL in batting, on-base, and slugging, and was a near-unanimous choice as Most Valuable Player.

Mauer could have reached a one-year agreement with Minnesota and become a free agent at the end of the 2010 season, but the prospect of a bidding war that might have landed him a ten-year deal and $300 million was not as attractive to him as being where he wanted to be.

“The greatest challenge for an agent is not necessarily to get the player the most money,” his agent Ron Shapiro told ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning, “but to help the player achieve his goals… He’s obviously got a gigantic contract, but he’s got a gigantic opportunity to be a pillar in the game, and that’s what’s really so exciting here.”

Keeping players in a place that makes them happy is nothing new for Shapiro, who represented Cal Ripken and Kirby Puckett, two superstars who played their whole careers for one team.   The negotiations would have played out very differently if, say, Scott Boras had been Mauer’s agent, which is probably one reason Boras isn’t Mauer’s agent.

The Twins gave Mauer a full no-trade clause, a major commitment to a catcher in an eight-year deal that will take him through his age-34 season.  They are undoubtedly confident that the power gains he showed in 2009 will stay with him as he goes through his prime years and beyond.  An OPS of 1.031 will play just fine at any other position, even first base or DH, if injury concerns dictate moving him from behind the plate.  As a catcher, though, his value is off the charts – and he’s not merely a catcher but a Gold Glove at the position.

It’s a common notion that the player movement created by free agency put an end to the era of the star who plays his whole career with the team that brought him to the majors.  But even among the ranks of Hall of Famers, that player was a relative rarity: Of 203 players chosen for the Hall of Fame on the basis of their playing careers in Major League Baseball, forty-nine played for one team only, fewer than a fourth of them.  Among the 40 players elected to the Hall for careers that fall wholly or in part in the free-agent era, twelve spent all their time with one team – a higher rate than for the earlier periods.

For the next eight years, Joe Mauer will be right where he wants to be, in a Minnesota uniform.  It’s a good thing for baseball that he was able to make that choice.

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