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January 7, 2011

Prospectus Perspective

Signing Adrian Beltre

by Christina Kahrl

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Apparently failing to get Cliff Lee has its benefits. As a defending pennant-winner, once you have decided that you have roughly nine figures to burn as fuel for your franchise's ambition, and then you don't get your man, what are you supposed to do? There was no other pitcher in the market worthy of anything like the same money. Maybe the Royals wanted too much for Zack Greinke. The list of pitchers you'd want to throw scads of cash at to pitch in Texas is fairly short.

As a result, the Rangers couldn't nevertheless improve themselves by just offering some significant fraction to the next-best option—there wasn't one, because by the time Lee had slipped away, the shelves were already emptying out.* Rather than merely re-sign and reward Vladimir Guerrero for a nice season to re-stock their DH slot, Jon Daniels resorted to something exceptionally bold, adding the best bat left on the market to make a massive upgrade at a position they were supposedly already set at, third base.

To be sure, paying Adrian Beltre $96 million over six years won't look good over the long haul. He'll hit his 32nd birthday shortly after Opening Day, so he's potentially under contract through his age-37 season. I say “potentially,” because as Jason Parks noted in the most recent BP Podcast, here are stipulations for voiding the sixth year, based on combined fourth- and fifth-year plate appearances (1200) or in the fifth year individually (600). Between the potential for injury or a bat gone slack with age, getting that last season voided isn't so very unlikely. Nevertheless, credit Scott Boras for holding out for something better than the Uggla money the A's and Angels were willing to throw at Beltre over five years. The game's best agent identified his idea of his client's value, and in retrospect, he clearly had it pegged.

For the Rangers, were there alternatives to spending this kind of money? Even if you could set aside the problem of choices going away as we moved deeper into December, I'd have to say no, not really. Daniels decided to not throw big money at a market overstocked with first basemen and DHs, which as I'll get to shortly, strikes me as an entirely rational response to the market. At any rate, absent Lee, the Rangers needed more than just a bat at their question-mark positions, first base and DH. Bigger price tags were attached to the two big outfielders on the market, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, but without that many obvious reasons why they deserved so much more than Beltre. In the abstract, getting in on Adrian Gonzalez or the like didn't really make that much sense either; where Texas has a great collection of talent on hand, they don't have so much ready or nearly ready big-league talent to deal from without hampering their efforts to win now.

Looked at that way, signing Beltre had everything to recommend it. Whatever your offensive metric of choice, Beltre was among the five best free-agent bats in baseball last season. But unlike the first-base/DH types like Jim Thome and Paul Konerko, and unlike Crawford and Werth, Beltre was the one premium bat that played one of the big three infield positions. And, as I noted yesterday, he's kinda good at it. That last consideration was particularly key. Using last year's rates of Marginal Lineup Value, let's say that Beltre is roughly a fifth of a run better than Michael Youngper game.

That's a two- to three-win pickup on a season right there, operating on the fairly safe assumption that Beltre's going to like hitting in Texas' cozy confines almost as much as he liked bopping in Boston. But the add defense to the mix, and going from Beltre, perhaps the best defender at third, from Young, one of the worst according to Colin's nFRAA, and even the most charitable interpretation of Young's range still adds up to another one or two wins; it gets bigger if you don't cut Young any slack. So in isolation, Beltre versus Young, we're probably talking about a four- or five-win pickup. Is that worth $96 million? Absolutely, as long as that holds true, over Young or any other ready replacement, which it will, with margins that large for the next year or three. 

However, there is the less happy ripple effect, that this notionally kicks Young into a DH/utility role, or perhaps even over at first base. That doesn't go so well for the Rangers, because Young's a lousy bat for either slot, only twice producing TAv marks anywhere close to acceptable for those kinds of offense-first slots, in 2005 (.302) and 2009 (.299). Expecting him to do that in his age-34 season and beyond isn't really good news for the club's offense. Of course, while they have shopped Young this winter, with $48 million owed to him over the next three seasons he's not really that portable, not without the Rangers eating a ton of cash. However, if they deal from the depth they now have to get a quality starting pitcher, a meal of Benjamins flambé makes sense, because there are all those DH-worthy bats still knocking around on the market for a pittance.

There is of course the suggestion that Young is more than just a DH, because he's also going to be the guy who steps in at third on Beltre's day off, and maybe for Ian Kinsler as well over at second. If that spares the Rangers too much playing time for Andres Blanco and the like, that's a modest gain, and that also opens up playing time for David Murphy. In the era of 12-man pitching staffs, that sort of modest flexibility is handy, but remember, Young's not the new Mark DeRosa if you remember the latter's spin as the Rangers' last superutility everyday hero, back in 2006—he's older, a worse defender, and no better at the plate.

The losers of Beltre's signing his contract are more numerous than you might expect at first glance. First, there's the rest of the AL West, in terms of the Angels and the A's not getting him instead. The A's had long since bugged out, of course, preferring to break up after fruitless flirting before getting publicly brushed off by the big man. The Angels simply blew it, insofar as they made a reasonable offer, got up and left the room, and found there was somebody else willing to get in on the action, in an upset almost as shocking as the Phillies' late victory in the Lee sweepstakes. Now they're stuck with last year's unpleasant choice between Maicer Izturis or Brandon Wood, or making a deal, because beyond curiosities like what's left of Hank Blalock or Andy LaRoche, the market's out of third basemen. A pity the Rangers wouldn't trade them Young, but miscalculations this big will end up requiring a creative solution if they're going to make last summer's trade for Dan Haren stand up as a win-now play in Anaheim.

But competitive balance in the AL West isn't the only group of third parties affected by the Beltre contract, The other big losers are the other DH candidates out there—all of them. Even if the Rangers eventually make a deal for pitching and open their own DH slot back up, by the time that happens there will be that much less money in the market left to spend on Thome or Vladi or Johnny Damon or Manny Ramirez or Russell Branyan, or an aspiring comeback kid like Jermaine Dye. For Gary Sheffield, the question isn't whether he's done or not, it's why anybody should specifically make room for him, as opposed to any of a number of other people. It's no wonder that Sheff is now talking retirement, even after posting a .372 OBP in 2009—as Alec Baldwin might have warned him, second place is a non-roster invite, and third place is quality time with the wife and kids shooting PSAs on your hometown cable-access channel.

Some of the eager early-winter shoppers have been punished as well, of course, for failing to appreciate the oversupply of bats on this winter's market at the furthest, least glovely end of the defensive spectrum. Just within the AL West alone, the A's and the Mariners both have cause to regret their deals with Hideki Matsui and Jack Cust. In contrast, Cust and Godzilla should feel great about getting deals before the limited number of spots available for bat-only ballplayers on every DH league's 40-man filled up. By agreeing quickly to deals before the holidays, they have guaranteed 2011 paydays and playing time to look forward to. That might sound like fairly prosaic consolation, but that's life in the deflating market for middle-class boppers. Valentine's Day might come with his Mannyness wondering whether all he has to look forward to is cashing deferred paychecks from the McCourts, or if it's time to take that call from the GM of the Mexico City Red Devils.

It's that situation that puts the teams still shopping in the catbird seat, because their openings at DH (and for one or two clubs, first base to boot) are worth more to the crowd of free agents available to man them. The Twins and the Rays are the most obvious examples, but even the Angels could profit from this situation, if they work up the nerve to leave Mike Napoli at catcher more often than not. If any of these team's first choices wants $6 million or maybe even just $4 million and a 2012 option, that doesn't matter—the clubs can just thank the guy's agent for his time, turn around, and dare somebody else to take less or pray he gets the right NRI deal.

In the meantime, the Rangers did what seemed unlikely at this late date in this winter's fast-developing Hot Stove—they made a game-changing move that ought to put them back on top of the short stack in the AL West. Lots of money wasn't the only thing left laying around after the failure to make Lee an offer he couldn't refuse, though.

There is still the big question about whether they really have the horses to deliver another division title, because the Rangers have the worst rotation in the division. Last year's gambles with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis have to be this year's sure things. Brandon Webb's comeback has to be a thing of glory, and Scott Feldman's doing likewise on his own comeback trail from repairing microfractures in his right (push) knee would do wonders. They need Tommy Hunter to fend off the regression monster that's stalking after a 2010 far better than you had cause to expect. They need Derek Holland to finally break through. Pile up that stack of ifs, and you've got a team that will have real problems getting through a short series, above and beyond having enough arms to deliver a season's worth of work they can win with.

*: I know, technically the next-best option is Carl Pavano. Given the choice between picking up their cell phone and making Pavano an offer, or using it to play street hockey with their interns, you can probably understand why Pavano's phone hasn't been ringing, and why Mike Rizzo's reportedly developed a wicked backhand slapshot.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  Dh,  Year Of The Injury,  The Call-up

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