There are strong indications that the Minnesota Twins and All-Star Joe Mauer are gathering momentum in their negotiations for a long-term contract that would keep the catcher anchored to his hometown team for the foreseeable future.
Mauer's agent, Ron Shapiro, was seen at the Fort Myers, Fla., airport early Sunday afternoon, near the Twins' spring training facility, amid signs there has been progress in the talks.
The working parameters of the deal were not known, but the expectation within the industry was that Mauer was in line for a contract of eight to 10 years, worth $20 million-$25 million annually.
Mauer is generally regarded as the American League's best player, and he may be baseball's most coveted player, given his unique set of skills. Mauer, who turns 27 next month, already has won three batting titles and two Gold Glove Awards, and last year, he began to hit for power, as well, posting a 1.031 OPS (combined on-base percentage and slugging).
If there is a late snag late in the negotiations with the Twins and no deal is concluded before the start of the season, then the next round of substantive talks probably wouldn't take place until later this season.
If Mauer were to go unsigned throughout the season and become a free agent in the fall, he would probably be the most coveted free agent since Alex Rodriguez reached free agency after the 2000 season. Numerous big-market teams could become involved in the bidding, including the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, White Sox, Angels, Cubs and Mariners.
But all along, Mauer -- taken as the Twins' No. 1 overall in the same year Mark Prior was eligible for the draft -- has indicated a desire to remain with the Twins, in his hometown of St. Paul, surrounded by family and friends. And barring a last-minute holdup, it appears he will reach an agreement that will allow him to play his entire career for the Twins.
Shapiro has also represented two other stars who played their entire careers with one team -- the Twins' Kirby Puckett, and the Orioles' Cal Ripken.
The Twins' signing of Mauer to a long-term deal would be widely hailed within the industry, at a time when there are growing concerns about the disparity between teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, and teams that generate less revenue, like the Rays, Athletics and Twins.
Assuming a Mauer deal is completed, a major challenge for the Twins -- who have evolved from a small-market team into a club with a midrange budget -- is how they can compete while paying one player such a high percentage of their payroll.
The Rockies made a similar investment in Todd Helton during the last decade, and while Helton has performed well during the course of the contract, his high salary has restricted Colorado's ability in making other moves.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.