The baseball LeBron? He’s already in the Majors

Nobody is ever content to just enjoy what they have in sports. It’s always about finding what’s “next.” ESPN has a whole magazine devoted to this every year. Everyone searched for the “Next Jordan” for years and years, until LeBron James came along. Then it almost immediately became about finding the “Next LeBron.”

Of course, other sports had to have LeBrons of their own.  So this year we have Stephen Strasburg, the San Diego State and Team USA mound phenom who was the first pick in this year’s baseball draft. Never mind that Scott Boras is extorting the Nationals for $50 million (!), the team apparently hasn’t even communicated with Strasburg, and no young pitcher is ever even close to a sure bet.

Then we get Sports Illustrated’s cover story on Bryce Harper, some 16-year-old catcher out in Vegas who apparently is like a baseball version of Paul Bunyan. He hits 600-foot homers, throws 96 on the gun, does volunteer work and gets good grades. He sounds like me in high school, except for, well, pretty much all that stuff. We’ll see how it goes.

Meanwhile, rather than concentrating on the phenom aspect of the old “LeBron” comparison, how about we focus on other things? I mean, how do you even compare skills across different sports? And even if Harper comes up and he’s great, is he going to be the best right away like LeBron was? Of course not. You telling me he’s going to hit better than Pujols off the bat? Or even Teixeira?

He wouldn’t even be the best-hitting catcher in the game. For that, you’d have to look at baseball’s true LeBron: Joe Mauer.

Yes, Joe Mauer. No, he doesn’t capture the imagination like LeBron, and yes, we’ve seen guys as good or better than him before. But like LeBron, his contract runs out after the 2010 season. And like the King, there may be a huge bidding war in store — unless the Twins figure out a way to lock him up sooner rather than later.
Sweet swing
Mauer is rapidly becoming one of the top five hitters in baseball. A .323 career hitter, he’s coming in at a robust .373 entering the second half of the season. He’s second in OPS to The Great Pujols — in the entire Major Leagues — and has already set a career high with 15 home runs. When all is said and done, Mauer may have one of the greatest seasons a catcher has ever had, ranking up there with some of Mike Piazza’s finest.

Then you have the All-American good looks, the “aw-shucks” attitude and his skills and intuition behind the plate. (Watch this play) Then factor in that Mauer is a great teammate and accounts himself well in interviews.  Combine it all with his bat coming into its own, and what you have is a Jeter-like figure — who might just be on the open market next year. Women baseball fans love this guy, and they buy tickets too.

Ever watch or listen to a Yankees-Twins game? Mauer is like a son to Michael Kay and John Sterling, who I bet are already salivating at the thought of coming up with idiotic “It’s Mauer power!” calls when he drills a 315-foot bomb to right. Jorge Posada’s contract runs until after 2011, but I doubt that would stop them, especially when Posada can DH.

The Yankees won’t be alone in chasing Mauer if available. You think the Mets don’t need some good will from their fan base after the past few years? For the Red Sox, Jason Varitek isn’t getting any younger. Honestly, almost any team can use a hitter as stellar as Mauer at a weak position, especially when the guy is a marketing dream.

So here’s a bit of advice to the Twins. Don’t screw around here: Lock this guy up no later than this winter. His price will only continue to go up. They’ll never get fair value in a trade, and if it goes to the open market, they’re finished.

And in terms of Bryce Harper? Wake me up when he can do this.

Esoteric

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