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Goethe: Mauer's value sits at catcher

FARGO -- It was an odd sight last week. Footage of Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer fielding ground balls at first base drew all sorts of reactions from a fan base that has grown more cynical as the season wears on.

The idea of Mauer changing positions makes a lot of sense, especially when considering the injuries that the Twins have suffered this season. Mauer himself missed two months of the season with a somewhat mysterious condition known as "bilateral leg weakness."

The Twins have to keep Mauer's bat in the lineup for this season, and there is no shortage of holes in the field for him to fill in.

But when looking at Mauer's value to the Twins and his contract, it seems too early to think that his future -- at least the next couple of seasons of it --is anything but as a catcher.

I know when I saw the footage of Mauer at first base, I was stunned. There was a time when I thought Mauer had a chance to spend his whole career behind the plate.

That viewpoint has changed, as Mauer's ability to stay healthy has come into question.

But considering the three-time batting champ is just 28 years old and in the first year of his eight-year contract that pays him $23 million per season, let's just say I didn't think he would be grabbing a first baseman's glove this soon. In the short term, I get it. But if you had told me last year that Mauer would be working out at first base in 2011, I would have been skeptical.

Mauer has yet to play a game anywhere in the field besides catcher, but the mere sight of him practicing at first has ignited speculation and debate. Should the Twins move Mauer to another position? Should they do it right now?

I think the answer to those questions depends on whether or not you think Mauer's recent two-month stint on the disabled list is an indication that he's wearing down. At his age, I assume it has more to do with his recovery from knee surgery last offseason. But I'm not a doctor, and Mauer isn't Carlton Fisk when it comes to durability. -- a baseball website that takes a sabermetric approach to the game -- attaches dollar figures to players based on what they're worth. Some players' values each season are worth more than they are paid, and some players' aren't. FanGraphs tries to determine that.

In his AL MVP season of 2009, Mauer was worth $35 million.

In four of the last five seasons, Mauer's performance has been valued at $22 million or more, which is near his annual salary. This is despite the fact that Mauer averaged about 130 games played in those five seasons. His total value for those five years was determined to be $121.7 million, which is fifth-best in baseball.

The reason for this is simple: Statistics are weighted based on position. And because Mauer plays catcher -- a position known more for defense and intangibles than for batting titles -- he's much more valuable.

If he were a first baseman, it would be another story. It's tough to find one comparable to Mauer, but I figure John Olerud is as close as it gets. He was a high-contact hitter during his playing days with some power.

In 2002, Olerud hit .300 with 22 homers and 85 RBIs. That's a little less average than Mauer's typical year, but a little more power. And FanGraphs valued that contribution at $12.3 million. Let's face it: No matter how high the batting average, there isn't sky-high value in first basemen that hit 12 homers per season.

What the Twins decide to do with Mauer will go a long way in determining whether or not his $184 million contract was worth it. Should he move to first base for the long term sooner rather than later, let me be the first to deem that contract a bust.

Goethe is the assistant sports editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.