A few random thoughts about Ian Desmond, free agency, and ‘franchise players’

Last season, I visited Target Field in Minnesota for the first time. I like visiting other Major League stadiums, not only to see the parks, but also to observe the baseball culture in other American cities.

I knew very little about Minnesota and the Twins. They’re off the national radar. But I did know one thing: Joe Mauer was Minnesota’s Cal Ripken, the hometown kid who grew up to win an MVP and sign long term with the team that drafted him. The fans loved him. He was a local hero.

I didn’t know much about Minnesota, but I knew this. Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard boos after Joe Mauer was introduced for his first at bat. When he grounded to first base after a pretty weak at bat, the boos grew louder. At first, I thought maybe Joe Mauer had a nickname the fans were chanting, like when Nationals fans chant “Dreeeeew.” But the guy sitting next to me quickly clarified that the fans “hate” Joe Mauer. According this guy, Mauer was “overpaid” and “overrated.” I was a little confused since I thought Mauer was still a pretty good player. I checked my phone for Mauer’s stats, and Baseball Reference confirmed to me that his numbers, while not quite MVP level, were still pretty good. To be a contrarian I cited these stats to the fan next to me. He didn’t care. He continued booing Mauer each at bat. He even pulled out his phone and tweeted something nasty about Mauer with the hashtags #overrated and #overpaid. Apparently in a baseball city with very little to cheer about, giving the “hometown hero” a hard time seems to have become a pastime in itself.

What the hell happened? Joe Mauer is a hometown hero. He went to high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. He made six All-Star teams. He won an MVP Award in 2009. In fact, that offseason, two years away from free agency, Joe Mauer became a “test” for the small market Twins. Local fans and media demanded the Twins resign their hometown guy. Minnesota is known for letting talent flee once they become free agents, or sooner. Chuck Knoblauch, Torii Hunter, and Johan Santana are just a few of the elite players the Twins choose to get rid of before they became expensive. If the Twins couldn’t keep Mauer, the thinking went, who could they keep?

Well, the Twins “stepped up” and gave Mauer a record-breaking 8-year, $184 million contract prior to the 2010 season, guaranteeing he would stay in Minnesota until 2018. Some national commentators criticized the deal, but many local fans didn’t seem as concerned. If Joe Mauer’s a little bit overpaid, who cares? He’s the type of guy you build a statue for outside the stadium someday. Cost shouldn’t be a concern.

Since then, Mauer has spent time on the disabled list. He played only 82 games in 2011 and only 113 in 2013. He’s since been moved to 1B to preserve his health. But he’s continued to produce at the plate when playing. His power numbers have never again approached his 28 HR 2009 season, but he got on base at a .361 clip last season, and .404 the year before that. His WAR was an outstanding 5.3 in 2013, although the move to 1B seriously cut into that last season.

The point is Mauer’s contract changed the fans’ perception. When someone is 26 years old and winning MVP awards, the fans want them forever. Give them a blank check. When that same player is over thirty, often injured, and clogging a team’s limited payroll, everyone starts to look at things differently.

That brings us to Ian Desmond. History often repeats itself, and it definitely did last offseason when fans and media said many of the same things about Desmond that the Minnesotans said about Mauer in 2009. Desmond, however, looks like he’s headed for a different fate. Mike Rizzo doesn’t even seem interested in signing Desmond to a contract extension anymore and Ian will likely pursue the record-breaking deal he seeks on the open market.

The PR battle over Desmond’s departure hasn’t even really begun yet. It’s painful for some fans to see a popular player go to another city and Ian Desmond will most assuredly sell his departure as the Nationals “letting” him walk away after refusing to offer him a “market value” deal. The Nationals will probably try to sell to you that their offer was more than fair and Desmond chose to leave.

Whatever side you choose believe doesn’t particularly matter. Looking ahead, the case of Joe Mauer could be very instructive. Mauer’s early years brought great memories for Twins fans: division titles and All-Star appearances. Maybe both sides would have been better off to quit while they were ahead.