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Passing on Joe Mauer a good sign for Sox

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 30, 2012 07:50 AM

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Have to imagine Ben Cherington didn't expect the first test of discipline -- that buzzword now so associated with the post-blockbuster Red Sox that it's a wonder it hasn't been etched on Fenway bricks and sold for the low, low price of $475 -- to come so soon.

But there it was Wednesday morning, accessed on the in-house MLB information wire by general managers such as Cherington and on Ken Rosenthal's Twitter feed for the rest of us: The Twins had placed catcher Joe Mauer on waivers.

Under normal circumstances, a player of Mauer's magnitude appearing on the wire would look like a formality, and it probably was, just the Twins gauging interest on a player they had no intention of letting go as a you-can-have-him waiver claim. The St. Paul native is the ultimate tale of a local-boy-made-good, and even with $142.5 million remaining on his contract, he's still a fair bet to be a career-long Twin.

But circumstances around here since last Friday night have tilted away from normal and have pretty much been stuck on extraordinary, and after the Red Sox shed more than $270 million in payroll in a single franchise-altering deal that seemed implausible when its parameters first leaked, it's probably not wise to dismiss anything as a possibility with this franchise right now.

mauerjoe830.jpg.jpgMauer is a player the Red Sox were known to covet before he signed his eight-year, $184-million deal to remain in Minnesota in March 2010. Why wouldn't they? He was a prime-of-career (just 26) catcher (love those producers at a premium position) who was coming off a season in which he won his third batting title (.365, while also leading the league in on-base percentage, .444, and slugging, .587). He also clubbed 28 homers, more than doubling his career high.

He was awesome, but in retrospect, the Twins probably locked him up at the very peak of his powers. He has hit just 20 homers total in the three seasons since, having been tormented by injuries and Target Field (four homers in 726 career plate-appearances there). He's lost some luster since his hellacious '09 output, but he's having a fine season by most players' standards (.309/.403/.425), he's remained healthy, and he won't be 30 until next April.

Cherington seems to have a pretty fair poker face -- he's so even-keeled publicly that I suspect sometimes that he has been programmed by Carmine and not vice versa-- but he must have at least arched an eyebrow when he saw Mauer's name Monday morning. That the Sox did not put in a claim is no surprise -- as intriguing as Mauer might be, his injury history makes it too much of a risk given the salary that remains. And the contradictory message it would send after the Dodgers deal would be difficult to explain away.

(I can't be the only one who amused to see the ticker message on NESN that said a "source'' indicated the Red Sox would not claim Mauer. Or maybe it's just because, fairly or not, I read it as this: NESN reports you do not have our permission to claim him, Ben.)

Anyway, the mantra of discipline survives its first real test, and we can get back to the question that will follow this team into the offseason: What will Cherington do to bolster this roster?

There's a better chance of reacquiring Josh Beckett from the Dodgers and giving him a nine-figure contract extension than there is of showering that new-found loot on Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke this offseason.

Does he re-sign Jacoby Ellsbury, who is just five months younger than Mauer, had one tremendous season, two good ones, and two devastated by injury? The reports that he's open to staying with the Red Sox strike this occasional cynic as little more than a way for his agent to make sure all options remain open. Weird, but free-agency apparently isn't so appealing when your home run total has dropped from 32 to 2.

uptonfinn829.jpg.JPGThe Red Sox do have the chips in the farm system to trade for a prime-of-career star approaching free agency who may be too pricy for a smaller market team -- you know, kind of like they did with Adrian Gonzalez. As wise teams such as the Rays lock up their young stars earlier by buying out their arbitration years, there are fewer appealing players of such high caliber available, and those should-be-untouchables who might be there for the taking, such as the Diamondbacks' Justin Upton, sometimes give you an uneasy feeling that there's something you don't know. I heard one sports radio host suggest Wednesday that the Red Sox should pursue the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen. I imagine they might, when the $51.5 million contract extension he signed in March expires after the 2017 season.

It's not going to be easy to rebuild (call it reload if that makes the bridge seem shorter) from this, even with all of the cash and assets at Cherington's disposal. And that's why I disagree with the suggestion that the Dodgers blockbuster will stand as the definitive move of his tenure. Oh, it will be a significant part of his Official General Manager Epitaph someday, just as Dan Duquette will be remembered for Pedro and Manny and Tek/Lowe and Crazy Carl and Jose Offerman's on-base capabilities, or how Theo Epstein will be remembered for a lot of good moves early (Papi, Schilling, Mueller, the Nomar blockbuster) and a lot of bad money late (Crawford, John Lackey, and the oft-overlooked awful signing of Bobby Jenks).

But it's premature to define Cherington on this one move when we don't yet know what he'll do after the Dodgers helped him hit that reset button. While his youthful, low-key manner makes it easy to forget that he's been a part of this organization longer than John Henry has owned the team, his dossier as a general manager is still thin; the Josh Reddick/Andrew Bailey deal doesn't look great, and neither does Mark Melancon/Jed Lowrie, though I'm willing to give those deals more time. The Cody Ross signing was a perfect secondary move, one you hope Cherington can replicate through the years to bolster the roster, and this Pedro Ciriaco fella is at the least a fan-favorite for the moment.

But his legacy won't so much be about Dodgers deal, but what he does with opportunity he has been given. Maybe he will get some executive of the year votes for executing this deal, this escape from baseball purgatory, and it's nice that his perception is favorable, because my thought on him all along is that he's an extremely capable baseball person put it an extraordinarily challenging position.

Maybe his bosses will even give him a plaque commemorating the occasion. But if the Red Sox are to collect more meaningful trophies and prizes in their future, Cherington not only has to be disciplined, he has to be right. After passing on Mauer, I'd say he's 1 for 1.

@GlobeChadFinn

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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