The MSM is arguing that this is good for baseball. Mauer's contract is the fourth-highest in league history, behind A-Rod's current Yankee deal, A-Rod's deal with the Rangers, and Jeter's expiring contract. Instead of residing with the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox or Cubs, a middle-market team owns this contract, and keeps its highest profile player in the process. Evidence is available, at last, that the little guy can compete. I for one even look at the contract with surprise for how small it is. Mauer easily could have gotten $200 million-plus on the open market.
But, lingering beneath the surface, is proof that once again the general wisdom doesn't see the forest for the trees. There are several storylines that don't add up when it comes to Mauer's Twins contract, and baseball's health. Baseball's problem has never been that its small market teams don't attach themselves to burdensome eight-figure contracts the way the big market clubs do. Baseball's perceived problem is that the small market teams can't compete. The reason they can't compete is that they can't afford the total payrolls of the big clubs.
In 2009, the Twins' total payroll was about $68 million. Joe Mauer is set to make $23 million a year, or 1/3 of the Twins' 2009 payroll. Even if the team is in a position to inflate its payroll to $100 million with its new stadium, Mauer would still be taking home nearly 25% of all money paid to players. The Twins may have come up with the money to keep Mauer, but this leaves the team with that much less money to keep other talent.
What would upset the fans in the Twin Cities more? Losing Joe Mauer, or struggling to compete beneath the weight of his new contract? Baseball's real problem, with respect to Joe Mauer's contract, isn't that so many good players move on to higher-paying cities, it's that a small market team felt compelled to dedicate anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 of its payroll to keep a player that, perhaps, it shouldn't have. We've seen this before. The Rangers struggled under the weight of A-Rod's old contract and the Blue Jays struggle under the weight of Vernon Wells. The Twins may very well field a team of Joe Mauer plus eight guys from the St. Paul Saints.
The next storyline that doesn't add up, with respect to this deal, is the belief that somehow the Yankees and Red Sox own the worst contracts in baseball. Examining the list of baseball's largest contracts doesn't reveal as many Yankees or Red Sox as one might think. It's true that the list is top heavy with Yankees, but two of those were CC and Tex, and it was going to take monster deals to get those guys. Otherwise, the damage has been fairly well distributed when it comes to the big deals. The Rangers are responsible for the first A-Rod deal. The Tigers offered Miguel Cabrera a fortune (and are cutting salary due to it). The Rockies purchased Todd Helton for a ransom. The Giants bid against themselves and inexplicably made Barry Zito a very wealthy man. And so on.
Of the 20 largest contracts in baseball, only one has come from the Red Sox and only five from the Yankees. Admittedly the Yankees are on this list more than any other team, but the idea that small market teams haven't spilled the ink for big name players is untrue, unless you feel the Rockies and Reds are big market teams. What is true is that the small market teams remain bad after paying up this way.
Which brings us to the last flaw to the logic surrounding Joe Mauer's contract: It completely overlooks the real currency of big market teams like the Yankees. The real advantage the Yankees have is their ability to pay players in the middle of the team's pay scale. The Javier Vazquez and Curtis Granderson trades are excellent examples.
In the first case the Yankees traded Melky Cabrera for Vazquez, or $3 million for $11 million. Most teams wouldn't have been able to afford Vazquez, certainly not with so little money leaving their payrolls in exchange for him. But the Yankees can afford to take on other teams' mistakes, and trade financial value for playing needs. This is precisely what they did with Granderson as well, exchanging low-cost players for the more expensive, and better. It is precisely this ability that may yet come back to haunt the Twins in the future, if they have to cut payroll massively should they find they can't afford good players to surround Mauer in three years.
Tell me again how this is good for baseball?