Brace yourselves, fantasy owners: The clock is officially ticking on Joe Mauer's catcher eligibility.
The Minnesota Twins announced Monday that Mauer, who has the highest career batting average at catcher (.328, specifically at that position and among those with 3,000-plus plate appearances there), owns the single-season record for batting average by a catcher (.365, in 2009), and has earned a record three batting titles by a catcher (2006, 2008 and 2009), will move to first base full time beginning in 2014, spawning the question: Just how full time is "full time"?
Owners in leagues with traditional Rotisserie baseball guidelines and who are focused on 2014 and 2014 alone can take comfort in the fact that, with 75 games played behind the plate in 2013, Mauer will retain catcher eligibility for the entirety of 2014. This includes ESPN leagues, but it's an important time to examine your league's rules in the event that you have a more stringent eligibility rule or perhaps eligibility that refreshes itself midseason (some leagues update positions at the All-Star break, for example). Mauer's move has the most significant bearing on keeper/dynasty leagues.
It's entirely possible that the Twins, who appear likely to go with a combination of young, defensively minded Josmil Pinto, and all-bat-no-glove Ryan Doumit behind the plate to begin 2014, might still grant Mauer enough occasional appearances at catcher that he might eke out another year's eligibility. Twenty games would do it in traditional Rotisserie and ESPN leagues. But with longtime first baseman Justin Morneau traded last July and now a free agent, and few other viable in-house alternatives at the position, it's possible that "full time" means just that: It's Mauer for 162.
While this won't cause Mauer's fantasy value to plummet into undraftable levels, the loss of catcher eligibility might have an adverse impact upon his fantasy stock. Using the past five seasons' Player Rater data, this was (or would have been) Mauer's relative ranking by year, among hitters overall, catchers and first baseman:
2013: No. 101 hitter, No. 8 catcher, No. 26 first baseman
2012: No. 46 hitter, No. 3 catcher, No. 8 first baseman*
2011: No. 256 hitter, No. 24 catcher, No. 46 first baseman*
2010: No. 60 hitter, No. 1 catcher, No. 13 first baseman#
2009: No. 9 hitter, No. 1 catcher, No. 3 first baseman#
* earned first-base eligibility in-season in 2011 and 2012; earned it effective Aug. 6 in 2011, and effective May 15 in 2012, in ESPN leagues
# did not qualify at first base in ESPN leagues in either 2009 or 2010
Besides the plethora of talent at first base, and the fact that first basemen tend to come to the plate significantly more often than catchers -- first basemen as a whole averaged 39 additional plate appearances per team than catchers -- skewing the numbers, Mauer's strengths and weaknesses run counter from our traditional expectations from a first baseman. He hits for average and not for power, underscored by the fact that 25 different players hit more home runs than Mauer's 11 as first basemen, while 46 first base-eligible players hit more than him, in 2013. Even during Mauer's out-of-nowhere 28-homer campaign of 2009, 10 players hit more as first basemen, while 15 first base qualifiers hit more.
Still, while power might be the more projectable skill from a career standpoint, Mauer's batting-average ability is scarcely matched, meaning that even as a first baseman, he won't suffer a severe drop in value. Again using Player Rater data, consider that Mauer's batting average in 2009 would have earned a No. 1 ranking among first basemen (this weighs the number as well as in how many PAs it was accrued), and in 2010, 2012 and 2013, his batting average would've been one of the five most valuable at the position. In addition, Mauer's .328 batting average during the past five seasons combined is higher than any other first baseman's (in only their games at first base) except Miguel Cabrera (.335), who spent two of those years as a third baseman.
Here's why that's important: If Mauer indeed plays first base on a full-time basis, he'll have a better chance at a 700-PA season, and most certainly greater odds at more PAs than the 534 he averaged per year from 2009-13. After all, the Twins made this decision primarily to reduce his risk of injury, including the concussion he suffered last August that cost him 39 games. More trips to the plate will mean a greater impact in terms of batting average, not to mention potentially more home runs, runs scored and RBIs that come with it. It could be easily argued that Mauer will be one of the 10 most valuable players in baseball in terms of his batting average contribution in 2014. He already was as a catcher.
It might seem as if Mauer should drop as many as 50 spots in any long-term ranking set, but I'm not so sure that's true. The injury concern was primarily responsible for my slotting him only 109th overall, and fourth among catchers, in my initial offseason rankings. With the potential increase in games/PAs, I've now moved him up 91st, and third among catchers (ahead of Carlos Santana).
Perhaps a year from now, when he might finally lose his catcher eligibility, 109th will be the correct landing spot for Mauer in the rankings. But would anyone really be surprised if this turns out to be the right decision, and entering 2015, he's actually in the 50-75 range … albeit a slight drop-off from his top-25 prime as a catcher?