On May 28 of last season, the San Francisco Giants were 25-22. Buster Posey was recalled the following day, the Giants went 67-48 and won their first World Series since 1954. Posey was named NL Rookie of the Year and finished 11th in the MVP voting despite spending the first two months in the minor leagues. His presence was a common denominator in changing the course of the Giants' season. Now, as Posey faces a recovery from a broken leg and severely sprained ankle ligaments following his collision with Florida's Scott Cousins Wednesday night, it's not unreasonable to wonder if an organization these days can afford to expose a player so critical to its success to the dangers of the catching position.
Since his recall, Posey has led the Giants in batting average and RBIs and is third on the team in home runs and slugging percentage. Accuscore.com ran 10,000 simulations on this season and if Posey misses the rest of this year, the computer projects the Giants' chances of reaching the postseason dropping from 57.7 percent to 44.4 percent. FanGraphs.com lists Posey second only to the Braves' Brian McCann in wins above replacement among all major league catchers since the start of the 2010 season. Certainly, a significant portion of Posey's value is because he's a catcher -- handling a pitching staff and throwing out baserunners. However, when does a player become too valuable as a hitter, or as a franchise cornerstone, to risk the wear and tear of working behind the plate?
Bob Boone played 19 years in the major leagues as a catcher and suffered an MCL injury in a home plate collision in 1979 that required extensive rehabilitation. While Boone said, "I never thought, 'Gosh, we've got to change the rule so that I don't get hurt,'" he does acknowledge the practical advantages of guarding an organization's most valuable assets, now that he's the Nationals assistant GM and vice president of player personnel. "We've made a lot of changes in the rules and in throwing at hitters over the years," Boone said. "It really has to do with the investment that baseball has in some of our young, great players -- and certainly Buster Posey, to lose him over something like this, is very hurtful to everybody."
Indeed, when the Nationals made Bryce Harper baseball's top overall pick in last year's draft, they shifted Harper from catcher to outfield. The move was meant to fast-track Harper's path to the big leagues and maximize his tremendous offensive potential, but just as important was the realization that the organization needed to minimize injury risks with its prized future hitting star.
Baseball players are investments. When a catcher becomes a leading hitter, he eventually becomes vital to the team's offensive production and is rewarded financially. When that financial investment then becomes so great it needs to see a return or risks damaging the long-term condition of the franchise, that catcher must change positions. This isn't an age thing. It's not Yogi Berra moving to the outfield at age 36, or a 34-year-old Johnny Bench starting 103 games at third base for the 1982 Reds. This is a money thing and the plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face question in Minnesota has quickly become: How can the Twins pay Joe Mauer $184 million and risk losing his bat for extended stretches because catching is taking too great a physical toll on his back and knees?
Catcher is a position of immense value on the field but it's one that provides the player a relatively low return financially, at least when compared to other positions. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, of the top 25 richest contracts in baseball history, Mauer is the only catcher. Behind Mauer and the Yankees' Jorge Posada, here are the highest-paid catchers by average annual value:
Kenji Johjima, $8,000,000 (2009-11)
Ramon Hernandez, $6,875,000 (2006-09)
A.J. Pierzynski, $6,250,000 (2009-10)
Bengie Molina, $5,333,333 (2007-09)
Jason Varitek, $5,000,000 (2009)
The catcher's value on the field is beyond description, but the risk involved in exposing the financial investment that a "franchise-type" player demands to the dangers of the catching position may simply have become too great. Take Atlanta's Brian McCann, who is 27 and has been an All-Star every year since 2006. For his career, McCann has averaged .288, 23 HRs and 99 RBIs per season. He's making $6.5 million this season, will earn $8.5 million in 2012, and the Braves hold a $12 million option for 2013. Assuming the option is picked up, McCann will be 30 years old when his current deal expires and will have caught eight full seasons in the big leagues. Would it then be practical for some team to give McCann a five- or six-year contract worth $100 million? Perhaps only if that team is willing to accept a decline in production in the back end of the contract or move McCann to another position midway through the term of the deal.
The Twins needed to sign Mauer to that $184 million contract. He'd grown into a brilliant player and into the very identity of their franchise. Posey, most would agree, was on a rocket to that same financial stratosphere and moving him from catcher already seemed in the cards. After all, Posey played his initial game on May 29 last season as a first baseman and went 3-for-4 with 3 RBIs. Teams need catchers and very good ones. The position is critical. However, the personnel at the position may have to become fungible as the price for superstars keeps going up.
Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN.