Prepare for a long off-season of rumors about which players Boston are and are not going to pursue, now that they've opened up a huge chunk of their budget thanks to their recent trade with the Dodgers. Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto, and the roughly $250 million in future contracts they represent went west, with Boston receiving prospects, James Loney, flexibility, and a winter full of people telling them how to spend all of their money in return.
Ken Rosenthal, to his credit, fires off a salvo with a line of reasoning that's pretty astute. The Twins have placed Joe Mauer and the remaining six years and $138 million of his long-term contract on waivers, opening him up to be claimed by any of the 29 other teams. Boston will have one of the early chances at him, given they own the fifth-worst record in the AL (the worst belonging to the Twins), so their opportunity to make a follow-up splash is one that would happen soon, if they so choose.
Rosenthal's main point is that, by passing up on Mauer, Boston is showing a commitment to the approach that Ben Cherington espouses, as well as the flexibility it provides. Claiming Mauer won't completely reverse the financial fortunes of the Red Sox, as his $23 million in annual salary is still well below the roughly $60 million per year they opened up with their deal, and won't bring them close to the luxury tax threshold. But, it would be $23 million already spent, and possibly unwisely, given the cost for Mauer in both players and roster construction.
The Red Sox decided to send Carl Crawford to the Dodgers in part because, after seeing him play through injuries for two years, and with five years and $102.5 million remaining, they had an opportunity to not bet heavily on his coming back productive. It's not the Red Sox saying Crawford was incapable of it; it's simply Boston taking advantage of a much less expensive opportunity that doesn't force them to back their beliefs up with $20 million a year.
Acquiring Mauer would be betting heavily on the same sort of thing. He's highly productive when he's healthy, as he's been in 2012, where Mauer is hitting .309/.403/.425 with a 130 OPS+ in 120 games. He's not quite as memorable when he's hurting, though, as 2011 reminds us, when Mauer hit all of .287/.360/.368 in 82 games played. One of those seasons has the run value of Adrian Gonzalez's Boston career, the other, closer to Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
That's a massive gap, and one that would cost $23 million per year regardless of where he ends up. He would be useful in the Victor Martinez sense, as Rosenthal mentions, given he can line up behind the plate, at first, or as a reasonable option at designated hitter. But the cost in money and at the expense of flexibility is likely too high, especially given he will be 36 years old when the contract ends.
Mauer has caught half of his games in 2012 -- he's not an every day catcher anymore. And with Ryan Lavarnway around in the future, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia here now, he wouldn't need to be. But the thing that makes Mauer worth this kind of money, or at least close to it, is this kind of offense from behind the plate. He's a very good (maybe even great), but not special, first baseman. If age and further injury means he can catch even less, a first baseman is what he's going to be.
That's a hefty price to pay for a risk that might not be worthwhile, and it doesn't even take into consideration that the Twins would want prospects in return for a claim -- they aren't simply dumping Mauer. Rosenthal says it would be young pitchers like Felix Doubront or Matt Barnes that the Twins would likely be looking for, and even though Boston has added pitching with their recent swap with the Dodgers, it's hard to imagine Boston wanting to both spend $23 million annually on a risky half-catcher while simultaneously giving up their young lefty and top pitching prospect.*
*With that being said, if the Twins are willing to eat a large chunk of the salary, significantly reducing the annual cost for Mauer, this becomes an entirely different conversation. Not necessarily a must-do for Boston, but a different conversation on the matter, given the financial risks would be lower, and Boston could more easily move him in the future should the need arise. I'm talking, say, $10 million a year covered by the Twins, and even them I'm not interested in moving any of The Bs (Bradley, Barnes, and Bogaerts). Why? Because Boston doesn't have to do this, and therefore, should go all hard line on this. It happens their way or not at all.
In that regard, Rosenthal is correct: this is the first test of what Boston's intentions with their money are. As a catcher, Mauer has the potential to be worth a huge portion of his remaining contract. But it's unlikely that he's going to be a catcher for the remainder of it, and that isn't even new news: that was the main worry with this contract in the first place, when it went into effect two years ago.
It's likely that Boston will pass on Mauer, just as they will pass on certain expensive free agents whose names are being bandied about at every opportunity. We'll know for sure if Ben Cherington is as committed to his plan as he says he is, but given the massive overhaul he already undertook in the last week, he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt even before he gets a chance to pass on Joe Mauer and his contract.