A: By March, 2010. That's not an arbitrary deadline.
It's true that Joe Mauer's current contract doesn't expire until the end of the 2010 season, but common sense tells us that we don't want to wait that long to extend the best catcher in baseball. No matter how good a player is, the Twins will always operate on a cost-versus-benefits ratio with players not under team control, and waiting to the last minute would likely mean we won't be happy with the outcome.
Not to point out the obvious, but doing that means that the Twins wouldn't just be bidding for themselves, but against every other team in baseball. And getting into a bidding war with the Yankees and the Red Sox isn't something Minnesota wants to do. This organization needs to ensure they're in a bidding contest of one, and to do that they need to address this issue early, and on Mauer's terms.
Which also means this issue would have to be hammered out prior to the start of the 2010 season. With of the kind of guy Mauer is, discussions for an extension aren't likely to happen during the year. He'll prefer to avoid off-field distractions when he should be focusing on the game. That brings us to March, 2010.
Obviously, the sooner this gets done, the better position the Twins will be in. Pressure will build over the next 13 months, and if they haven't completed a deal by that juncture, I have to believe the chances of it happening at all decline precipitously. Because even if Mauer is the kind of guy who would take a "home town discount" in order to stay in Minnesota, and he very well could be, it'd be hard for anyone to turn down a salary that's nearly twice what you could make by staying put.
All of that is pretty much common sense. My next question: how much money is Joe Mauer going to sign for?
As it stands, Joe is due to make $10.5 million in '09, and $12.5 million in '10. If the Twins are trying to get an extension done before this season starts (which is preferrable, in my book), those numbers can stay as starting points. As for how long the contract should be for, it should be for at least an additional three years, which would be 2013. Personally, I'd want to tie Mauer up through his physical prime, or between the time he'll be 31 to 33 years old. Split that difference, and sign him through his age-32 season; or 2015.
For reference, although I'm not sure how relevant it will be, here are the other nine top-banking catchers in baseball for 2009:
Jorge Posada, New York Yankees: $13.1 million
Kenji Johjima, Seattle: $8 million
Ramon Hernandez, Cincinnati: $8 million
A.J. Pierzynski, Chicago White Sox: $6.25 million
Bengie Molina, San Francisco: $6 million
Victor Martinez, Cleveland: $5.7 million
Jason Varitek, Boston: $5 million
Brian Schneider, New York Mets: $4.9 million
Jason Kendall, Milwaukee: $4.6 million
If you're paying money for talent, then you have to pay Joe Mauer more than all of these guys. And more than a few of them combined.
So your five-year extension/seven-year contract for Mauer starts off with $10.5 million in 2009 and $12.5 million (a 19% increase) in 2010. Another 19% increase for 2011 would pay Joe $14.875 million, but because he and Justin Morneau are like two peas in a pod we'll take that back to an even $14 million. It's an arbitrary move, but it saves ego while ensuring a premier player getting his due. Duplicating that figure for 2012 and 2013 (when Morneau's contract expires) should still make him the highest-paid catcher in baseball. Finish the back end of the deal with two years at $16.5 million, which leaves us with this final line: seven years, $98 million.
That's an average of $14 million per season. Is that fair? You tell me, it's just my starting point. All I know is that if Minnesota allows Mauer to get a whiff of the open market, they will be absolutely crushed. I don't want that to happen.
But all the talk about years and money is just speculation. The bottom line is the issue on the horizon; the one better dealt with today than this time next year, and certainly better than November 2010. It's a different scenario than the Johan Santana situation, but the rules are the same: act early to put yourself in the position you want to be in. Minnesota failed to do that with Santana. Hopefully that lesson is still fresh in their minds.