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September 9, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

Adrian Beltre: The Game-Changer?

by Joey Matschulat

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On Sunday, eight months and a day after word leaked of his defection to the land of cattle ranches, oil fields, and mind-melting Big 12 Conference feuds, Adrian Beltre ripped a seemingly nondescript single through the right side of the infield at Fenway Park to move recent 2,000-hit club entrant Michael Young from first to third base. If not for the momentary stoppage of play and the ensuing game of hot potato that ultimately steered the game ball over into the relative safety of the Rangers' dugout, an in-house spectator likely wouldn't have assumed any special significance of the hit—a hit that was itself Beltre's 2,000th hit, rendering him the youngest third baseman in history to reach the plateau, and one of only 46 players in history to reach the 2,000-hit milestone by the end of his age-32 season. Texas won, 11-4.

Three nights later, the never-say-die Angels extracted nearly everything they could have reasonably hoped for out of their own third baseman... or basemen, even. With the bottom of the eighth inning underway, and with Los Angeles staring down the barrel of a potential 1-0 loss to Charlie Furbush and the Mariners (and thus facing the prospect of gaining only one half-game in the AL West standings during a three-week stretch where their schedule was a relative cakewalk), the third-base platoon of (a pinch-hitting) Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis went walk-double to put the Angels ahead for good. For one night, at least, it would have been difficult to argue vigorously in favor of an alternate reality where the Angels, not the Rangers, had won the Beltre sweepstakes.

But what about over the entire season? That’s where the storyline becomes more interesting. It is rare that an individual player is tied so strongly to every team in a division in a meaningful way; occasionally, it'll be a straight instance of a long-tenured player signing with each team at some point during his career, like Mark McLemore did during his 19-year career. But with Beltre, it's more a case of "sign with one (AL West) team, then be courted concurrently by the other three teams six years later." And with Beltre, we're left to contemplate a couple things: First, how would the divisional playing field have been shifted if one of the Rangers' opponents had landed Beltre? And second, what, exactly, do the Rangers have on their hands going forward?

Playing the What-If Game
So far, the narrative has the two newest members of baseball's 2,000-hit club coexisting peacefully, and simultaneously playing key, productive roles in the Rangers' hopeful march to October... but it didn't always look so easy, and there was an extended window where it appeared it wouldn't come together at all. Following a half-decade engagement in Seattle where his performance fell short of expectations (even though those expectations extended beyond the actual $64 million contract, which he did mostly live up to), and then a one-year stint in Boston where he compiled monster numbers in exchange for a mere $10 million outlay, Beltre entered the 2010-11 offseason as one of baseball's hotter free-agent commodities, and easily the top available third baseman.

Of the reported half-dozen teams that expressed preliminary interest in Beltre back in mid-November 2010, the Athletics—whose previous three-year, $24 million offer to Beltre's camp during the 2009-10 offseason was rejected—struck first, submitting a five-year, $64 million bid. One day earlier, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe cited a major-league source who claimed that the Red Sox would not expand their own bid beyond four years and $52 million. In that moment, at least, it seemed that the Athletics were the front-runners simply by virtue of being the first team to enter the sweepstakes. But any glimmer of success was fleeting. Nothing else of significant note ever transpired on this front (that found its way into the public spotlight, at least), beyond ESPN.com's Buster Olney indicating nearly a month later that the Athletics had withdrawn their offer and moved on to other targets after the Beltre camp "repeatedly ignor[ed]" their attempted overtures.

Not long thereafter, an Angels team still bummed over its failure in the Crawford sweepstakes was said to have realigned its sights on Beltre, and reportedly emerged with a "significant offer" worth an estimated $70 million over five years. In the interim, the Rangers found themselves initially portrayed as an interested party, then as a team more interested in backing off and rolling with the status quo, then once again as an interested, albeit lagging, party. Less than a week before the climactic finish in negotiations, the Rangers were characterized as a team "uncomfortable with both the price and fit," whereas the Angels seemed on the cusp of making it over the top and finalizing an agreement within the next few weeks, if not days. 

And, well, we know how it turned out. Texas ultimately triumphed with a five-year, $80 million deal with an attached sixth-year vesting option valued at $16 million, whereas the Angels reportedly tapped out at five years, $77 million. Beltre, for his part, cited his desire to win as being the more compelling factor than the money. And the Rangers, chiefly motivated by a desire to extricate Young (and his rapidly declining range) from third base and the realization that no better third basemen were due to be freely available in the foreseeable future, won the multi-team sweepstakes, then successfully resolved a boiling crisis roughly a month later when Young demanded a trade that would have required Texas to eat a substantial chunk of the $40-plus million remaining on his contract while netting inferior players in return. It was difficult to envision how this could have played out any better for the Rangers.

But what of the Angels and Athletics? In a world where pre-season projections always manifested in reality, a more aggressive play on Beltre would have bestowed Oakland with a much greater chance at winning the division title, as a slew of projection systems put the Rangers less than five games ahead of the Athletics at the outset of the season. But since reality doesn't work that way, we now know that Beltre would have likely been the difference between 73-74 wins and 76-77 wins in 2011. Scott Sizemore's above-average .243/.339/.432 showing in 283 PA at the hot corner in Oakland does help blunt the sting, and will continue to do so if he can maintain that offensive clip going forward, but the lingering implications of (a) larger-scale disinterest in Oakland as an attractive destination for big-name free agents and (b) payrolls suppressed by anemic revenue streams are still standout concerns.

The Angels, meanwhile, find themselves in an even odder position. Criticism cascaded  upon Tony Reagins for failing to upgrade the offense at any one of several key positions at the non-waiver trade deadline (catcher and third base, in particular), but the not-so-dirty little secret is that third base hasn't been a notable liability for the Angels this year. That aforementioned Izturis/Callaspo combo is chiefly responsible for the Angels' .279/.351/.371 showing at the hot corner this season, which is problematic from a power production standpoint, but well beyond adequate otherwise. Slapping a hard numerical value on that overall production is a bit difficult, since Izturis has logged only 30 games at third base this season, but the separation between Texas and Los Angeles at third base this season works out to approximately 2-2 ½ wins. However, in a division where the last two teams standing are separated by only 2 ½ games, those translate into rather significant wins on the marginal win curve.

The Future
Now referring exclusively to the Rangers, the good news about Beltre is that he's still an elite defender at third base boasting exceptional range, arm strength, and 25-30 homer power. The bad news? He's on the wrong side of 30 by a couple of years (32, to be exact), battling hamstring problems that have already cost him 30-plus games this season, and tossing up a .316 on-base percentage in year one of a monster deal, with his 5.1 percent walk rate standing out as the second-worst full-season mark of his career.

That he could finish this season with an OBP that low while furnishing such significant value to his employer would render this season an unusual one: During the expansion era (1961-present), there have been 2,554 individual seasons where a player recorded at least 3 ½ wins above replacement (by Baseball Reference's calculation, at least). Only 88 of those seasons, or less than four percent overall, were accomplished with OBPs of .320 or less. And the higher you travel up the WAR scale, the further that percentage drops. Regardless of which variation of WAR you trust the most, Beltre is quickly zeroing in on the four-win mark. While that’s encouraging in the sense that he has proven he can still be a very valuable property without reaching base at an especially strong clip, it does lead one to ponder his fate if the dropoff continues and he loses a step at third base defensively.

And though the Beltre commitment is technically $80 million over five seasons, the conditions under which the sixth year can vest—600 PA amassed in the fifth year, or 1,200 PA amassed in the fourth and fifth years combined—are reasonable enough that another $80 million is well within his reach beyond 2011, spanning his age 33-37 seasons. Even if you're predisposed to generosity with a player who has as many skins on the wall as Beltre, the risk of physical breakdown, loss of contact-/power-hitting ability, and/or deterioration of range (and the potential move across the diamond to first base that it could bring about) is substantial enough that the last 2-3 years of Beltre's deal may well prove to be a major thorn in the Rangers' side from 2014-16.

 But, on the other hand, contending windows don't remain ajar forever, the Rangers arguably needed Beltre more right now than they needed any other available player (including Cliff Lee, whose demands for a guaranteed seventh year nixed a potential return to Texas), and the combination of winning baseball and a lucrative forthcoming television contract have the revenue taps gushing forth more cash than ever. And so, perhaps all really is just as it should be.   

Related Content:  Texas Rangers,  Third Base

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