Ramos, Mauer and Morneau… who’s gonna go?

Warning: This is another lengthy post from JC with the occasional use of numbers.

There have been a number of interesting things going on in the past few days and weeks that seemingly have nothing to do with one another and there’s been no shortage of media and blog attention to them individually. But I’m a “connect the dots” kind of person who tends to see patterns and conspiracies in just about any set of random events.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I would look at the new contracts of Joe Mauer and Ryan Howard, along with the remarkable Major League debut of Wilson Ramos, and see threads that bind them together.

Just so we’re all coming at things from the same starting point, let’s review a few things. All of Twins Territory knows Joe Mauer begins making $23 million a year next year and has a no-trade contract through the following eight years.

Phillies 1B Ryan Howard signed a lucrative (some would say absurd) extension that will pay him $20 million a year in 2012 and 2013 and $25 million from 2014 through 2016. By comparison, a couple of years ago, Justin Morneau signed a deal with the Twins that pays $14 million a year through 2013.

The Twins have generally spent about 50% of their revenues on their Major League payroll. With 2010 estimates coming in around $200 million in revenues and just south of $100 million in payroll, they seem to be continuing along the 50% path. It’s tough to imagine those revenues increasing much (if at all) as the newness of Target Field begins to wear off, so it’s also tough to imagine their payroll being allowed to increase significantly, either. But this isn’t a post about the Twins’ payroll anyway… well maybe it’s a little bit about payroll.

It’s not so much that the Twins may not have room in their payroll to afford their current stars, as it is that they may not have room on the field for them.

How could this possibly be? What happened? Things have been humming along nicely so far this season with nothing but the occasional “Kubel or Young?” debate among Twins faithful.

In short, Wilson Ramos happened.

Not that Ramos has come out of nowhere. Ramos has been one of the Twins top 3 prospects as ranked by Baseball America (and pretty much anyone else who ranks such things) for the past couple of years. In fact, he was BA’s Winter Player of the Year this past off season. There’s no such thing as a “sure thing” where baseball prospects are concerned, but the last time the Twins had a catcher in their system this close to being a “sure thing”, his name was Mauer.

The Twins didn’t have a lot of leverage in their negotiations this spring with Mauer and his agent, but what little they did have was named Ramos. If Mauer were not a Twin Cities native and/or if he and his agent had insisted on A-Rod money, Wilson Ramos might already be the Twins’ regular catcher.

In other words, while nobody should make too much of the hot start to his Major League career, nobody should make too little of it, either.  He’s good.

Seth Stohs posed the question of what to do about Ramos and Mauer in his TwinsCentric blog at the Strib. He proposed that the Twins have four options, though at least one of them arguably is not an option at all. Joe Mauer isn’t going to be traded any time soon and Ramos is almost certainly headed back to Rochester when Mauer is healthy enough to play every day again.

But what about next year? How long do you keep a guy like Ramos “down on the farm” once he’s demonstrated to you (and everyone else in baseball) that he’s ready to contribute at a high level in the Bigs?

The answer is, “you don’t”. In 2011, absent injury, Wilson Ramos will be a starting Major League catcher… somewhere.

The easy solution, when you’re the GM of a team that sees itself as a World Series contender, is that you trade a valuable, yet blocked, talent like Ramos to a team who is building for the future and has an established Major League ballplayer who’s getting too expensive for a team in that situation to keep. You don’t trade Wilson Ramos for washed up 35 year-olds, for one-year rentals, or for another team’s “prospects”. You get someone you KNOW will add wins to your record immediately.

But what if you want to keep Ramos? Well, despite what some people (who likely never played the game) seem to think, you can’t simply give Ramos a different glove and turn him in to a Major League third baseman. Everyone reading this has watched Nick Punto and Brendan Harris charge slow rollers or leap to their left or right to snag a ball, then make some sort of acrobatic throw to 1B for an out. And by now, everyone has gotten a look at Wilson Ramos. Seriously… do you see this guy making those plays? To my eyes, Wilson Ramos is a catcher and a very good catcher. He hits well, for a catcher. He is not and never will be a 3B. You don’t waste time making him your DH either. He’s just too valuable a commodity as a catcher.

No, if you want Wilson Ramos on the field for the Twins in 2011, Joe’s gotta go… probably 90 feet up the line to either 3B or 1B. Unlike Ramos, it’s not hard to imagine Joe Mauer excelling at either corner infield spot, given enough work at the job. He could also probably perform well in a corner OF spot, but the Twins have a pretty solid supply of corner OFs both on the Major League level and in the minors.

People I respect continue to maintain that Danny Valencia will become the Twins’ answer at 3B by 2011. If not, a couple of years behind him, they have Miguel Sano coming up. Sano is the Dominican prospect that the Twins shelled out over $3 million for last winter. But try finding a legitimate offensive threat among the first basemen in the Twins organization, not named Morneau.

And what about Morneau?

Well, this is where payroll comes in. See… I told you this was a “little bit” about payroll.

As I mentioned, Doc is locked in at $14 million a year through 2013. That seemed like a lot of money a couple of years ago. But that was before someone in the Phillies organization went insane and gave Ryan Howard a deal that will pay him $25 million annually starting in 2014… coincidentally, the same year that Morneau’s next contract will start.

But Howard’s deal is just the beginning. Between now and the time Morneau’s agent will begin negotiating his next deal, fellow star 1Bs Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and some guy in St. Louis named Pujols will have new deals. All of those players are likely to exceed Howard’s contract and they’ll be setting new bars for Morneau and his agent to be aiming for.

As much as I would love to see the Twins’ M&M boys ride off in to the sunset of their careers together in Twins uniforms, I simply can’t envision a scenario where that happens.

So if I’m the Twins’ GM and I look in to my crystal ball and see no Justin Morneau being re-signed and nobody in my farm system looking like the “next Morneau”, what do I do?

I trade Justin Morneau before the 2011 season.

In the next year or so, the Cardinals, Padres and Brewers are going to be faced with negotiating new deals with  Pujols, Gonzalez and Fielder for anywhere between $25 and $30 million a year (or trading those players to another team who will meet their respective prices). The market for Morneau, who will still have three years at a comparatively modest $14 million per year remaining on his contract, will never be higher.

The Twins are almost certainly going to lose Morneau, either by trade before his final contract year, or to free agency following 2013. Postponing the inevitable makes sense if you have nobody to replace him of comparable abilities. But that’s not the case, if you move Joe Mauer to 1B.

The bottom line is this. This off season, the Twins will have two valuable trade chips in Ramos and Morneau.

If the Twins won’t trade Ramos, they need to create a spot for him in the everyday lineup and the only logical spot is at catcher. Moving Mauer to 1B allows them to put Justin on the market. Morneau would likely bring back pitching and infield talent to upgrade multiple roster spots immediately and in to the future.

Of course, trading Ramos instead could also bring immediate help at other positions and if the Twins are prepared to say unequivocally that Joe Mauer will be catching for the foreseeable future, then trading Ramos makes perfect sense.

But that means that a couple of years later, they’ll have neither Ramos nor Morneau and, considering the abuse any catcher takes over the course of a couple of seasons, it’s a fair bet that the Twins will be forced to move Mauer to a new position by then anyway.

If I’m the GM, I listen to offers for Wilson Ramos this summer and if, say, the Royals decide they don’t want to pay Zach Grienke the $13.5 million they’re going to owe him starting next season, I’ll deal Ramos and strengthen my team right now. But absent that kind of “knock me off my feet” offer, I’m holding on to Ramos this year and if everyone stays healthy, I’m going to look for a good deal in return for Morneau after this season… and buy Joe Mauer a new first base mitt.

4 thoughts on “Ramos, Mauer and Morneau… who’s gonna go?

  1. Aw, shucks ira, you’re gonna make me blush!

    I’m glad you enjoyed the blog. It’s nice to know that pieces you put some time and thought in to are actually being read occasionally! :)

  2. I think there is a negative 85% chance of Mauer moving to another position in the next 5 years.

    My plan would be to trade Kubel and insert Ramos as a DH (thats if no one is willing to trade a stud pitcher for Ramos) Gives the team a nice right handed bat and a fill in catcher

    actually my plan would be to keep the team intact and never to trade anyone :p , but thats not possible

  3. I’d love to keep the core of this team intact for several more years, too, James. But as you said, that’s probably not possible.

    You’re correct about Kubel being expendable. He just has limited trade value given that NL teams will doubt he can play the OF every day and he has not demonstrated he can hit LH pitching well.

    There are a lot of proposals floating in blogdom that have Ramos and Mauer sharing catching and DH roles, but given Gardy’s phobia concerning having both of his catchers in the lineup and, potentially, losing his DH if his catcher gets dinged during the game, this solution may result in the Twins carrying 3 catchers. I don’t think that’s a luxury any team can afford.

    Some sort of gradual transition over the course of a season may work out (Victor Martinez has done that C/1B shuffle pretty well for a few years now). I suspect, however, that some team will eventually make Bill Smith an offer he can’t refuse.

    Oh… and my guess on the number of seasons Joe remains primarily a catcher is 2 (after this season). By 2013, I’d bet money he spends more time at another position than he does catching and I’d make a side bet that he is the eventual successor to Morneau at 1B.