The baseball world is abuzz with the news that Joe Mauer will be a Twin for a very very very long time. Many people have and will viewed this contract situation as some kind of battle for baseball's soul, as the local hero Joe Mauer must be not allowed to become a Yankee or Red Sox (never quite mind what Mauer might personally want, one way or the other). Over the next few days, we can expect quite a number of "this is good for baseball" stories. I'm sure Poz is writing one now. Mauer will talk on Monday afternoon about how much he loves Minnesota, and the fans will flood message boards, blogs, and talk radio with similar sentiments.
But there's still no way of knowing how everyone will feel about this contract in 2013, or 2015, and especially not in 2017 and 2018. Reportedly, Mauer's contract is for $184 million dollars, and will cover 2011-2018, his age 28-35 seasons. That comes out to $23 million dollars annually.
Mauer is going to be paid fantastically well, and while I expect that this deal will be framed as having some kind of "hometown discount", considering where all the leverage in the negotiations lied, it looks more like a hometown premium.
As a Royals fan, I suppose I'm expected to feel good about this situation, as I must be resentful towards the bigger market clubs, and happy that Mauer stayed in the Midwest. However, that isn't really my reaction. Instead, I think about Mike Sweeney, and what happened when he signed his big contract in 2003. That contract looked great (or at least fair) at the time, and quite quickly transformed into a poison pill. By the end, a large percentage of Royals fans weren't happy that they'd been able to "lock up" Sweeney as a Royal. Instead, they resented his salary, and viewed him as a millstone on the franchise's hopes.
Sweeney's contract was initially for 2003-4, and if the Royals finished over .500 in one of those seasons, it would become a contract that lasted through 2007. The salary was set at $11 million per year. When the Royals went 83-79 in 2003, there was a general feeling amongst the game's romantically-inclined cognoscenti that the greatest winner was the Royals fans, who would now get to have Sweeney in a Royal uniform for the foreseeable future.
Prior to signing the first version of the contract in 2003, Sweeney was a career .309/.379/.501 hitter. However, from 1999-2002, Sweeney was even better, hitting .324/.396/.535. He averaged 146 games per season during that period. He brought little to the table in terms of positional value, defense, or baserunning, but he was one of the game's elite hitters. On the whole, Sweeney's contract would cover his age 29-33 seasons.
We know how the rest of the story turned out. Sweeney's performance slipped as he aged, and his health deteriorated. Between 2003-2007, the period in which he was paid $11 million dollars per season, Sweeney hit .284/.353/.476. Since we're talking about how these deals are received by casual or mainstream fans, that dip in batting average is especially important. Why wasn't Sweeney a .300 hitter anymore? What happened to those RBIs in the middle of the order?
In fact, the negativity surrounding Sweeney's performance was so prevalent that its surprising to see how non-terrible his numbers actually were. Sweeney's performance during that time wasn't awful, it was merely mediocre for a slow, no-defense 1B. That wasn't what the Royals Fans Yahoo Group I was a member of during those years thought.
Of course, that was only half the story. Crippled by chronic back problems, Sweeney averaged 94 games played during those five seasons. Seemingly, he was always either on the verge of heading towards the DL, or just coming back from it. In 2006, Sweeney played in just 60 games, and in a sense his career as someone considered an impact every day player was over. Just three years before he was someone who was part of the Royals supposedly remaining viable in Kansas City.
We aren't at a point in our society where athletes can sit on the DL, continue to get paid, and have people be terribly understanding. The same people that would have screamed bloody murder if Sweeney had signed with the Yankees in 2005 (had his extension not vested) were now calling him "Mike Weenie" and questioning his toughness. As the Royals bottomed out in 2005 and 2006, his $11 million dollar salary was close to a third of the team's payroll, and it certainly wasn't viewed as the team's commitment to winning. It was seen by quite a few as an encumbrance to winning, and a sign of the team's stupidity and bad luck.
Joe Mauer is better than Mike Sweeney. He plays a premium position well, and he is a similar hitter. His career line is .327/.408/.483. Like Sweeney, he derives a lot of his peak value from batting average, and that isn't the happiest skill for giant guys as they age. He's also coming off of a sublime 2009 season. However, he is also a catcher, and his contract is considerably longer than Sweeney's was.
Mauer is also thought of as a great guy. So was/is Mike Sweeney. Sweeney was a very religious, devoted family man, who remained involved in the KC community and never once did anything that anyone complained about. It didn't matter. It won't matter for Mauer either.
As a baseball contract, this is a fascinating gamble by the Twins. It looks very risky from a baseball sense, and riskier than many think from a PR one. When it comes to "what it means to baseball in Minnesota" or "proving the overall health of the game" or all that kind of hooey, I would argue we all need to slow those pronouncements down. Things change and then they change again. And then they change again. The perception of the casual or mainstream fan is extremely fickle, so I'd be very hesitant to consider making them happy tomorrow much of a long term commodity.