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May 13, 2004

Prospectus Today

Wheel of Beltran

by Joe Sheehan

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This was supposed to be a lead that talked about my grandmother, who died in 1992, her love of game shows and my love of her. It didn't work, so I ditched it.

But man, I miss her.

See, I got to thinking about Nana because there's an interesting game show developing in MLB these days. With the Kansas City Royals playing down to their talent level, it's becoming clear that they'll have little reason to keep Carlos Beltran through the end of the year, after which they'll lose him as a free agent. (No one, anywhere, thinks he'll re-sign with the Royals.) Beltran has become one of the top 10 players in the game, a complete package of offense, defense and speed. He's going to break the bank as a free agent, and is one of the few players in the trade market with the potential to change a race.

So the game of "Center Fielder!" consists of finding potential suitors for Beltran and creating trade possibilities, blockbusters, with the Royals and those teams.

No game show can have 29 contestants, so let's narrow the field. Because Beltran is almost certain to press his luck in the market after the season, the teams who might be asked to come on down, first and foremost, are the ones trying to improve their chance of a championship in 2004. Realistically, this eliminates about half of MLB: the Orioles, Devil Rays, Blue Jays, Indians, Tigers, Rangers, Expos, Brewers, Pirates, Reds, Rockies, Mets, Mariners and Diamondbacks. Some of those teams find themselves over .500 right now, but they're unlikely to be making major moves by the trade deadline. Of these teams, only the Rangers and Mets are in jeopardy of moving off this list, the latter only because they might see it as an opportunity to get a two-month head start on signing him.

The team trading for Beltran has to have space in its outfield to accommodate him. Note that this doesn't necessarily have to be center field; any contender would be well advised to replace its weakest link with Beltran. Teams that don't seem to be able to pass this test include the Angels, Braves, Astros, Cubs and Phillies. The Angels' many outfield injuries may put them in the market eventually. The Astros certainly could use Beltran, but seem committed to Craig Biggio, rationality be damned.

Beltran isn't making a ton of money this season, just $9 million, so teams don't have to be high rollers to make a play for him. He'll cost $3 million at the trade deadline, and an additional $750,000 for each week before that. Teams looking to trade for him have to be willing to take on that much salary in a deal. As far as I can tell, only the Marlins and Twins seem unlikely to do so, and even that's a bit of a guess. I'll eliminate them based on a combination of this and the previous guideline.

Twenty-one teams down...Perhaps the most important trait is that teams looking to trade for Beltran have to be able to cobble together a package of talent that pries him loose from the Royals. This probably leaves the Yankees, Cardinals, Giants and Red Sox flailing; none of them have the necessary close-to-the-majors or low-service-time talent, particularly in position players, that the Royals will demand.

I've written about the Yankees' edge in the trade market, the one they leveraged in acquiring Alex Rodriguez, where their revenue advantage allows them to add onerous contracts in order to make trades that other teams cannot. That doesn't apply here; Beltran's contract isn't a bad one, and the Royals don't have bad ones that the Yankees could take off their hands as part of a Beltran deal. While all four of these teams--well, perhaps not the Cardinals--will be after Beltran in the free-agent market, none seem able to pick him up before then.

These four rules eliminate 25 of the 29 teams, leaving the White Sox, A's, Dodgers and Padres. Taking them in order:

  • The White Sox haven't had a real center fielder since 1998, when Mike Cameron played there. They have little in the way of close-to-the-majors position-player talent, but they do have pitchers such as Kris Honel (pending resolution of his elbow problem), Ryan Wing, Neal Cotts and Felix Diaz. Their top two picks from last year, Ryan Sweeney and Brian Anderson, are outfielders who had strong debuts in '03. Anderson, the more polished of the two, is off to a strong (.330/.400/.553) start in the Carolina League. At this point, the Sox would probably make Joe Borchard free with purchase.

    The Sox would make as big an upgrade as anyone by acquiring Beltran, and Kenny Williams showed last year that he's not averse to making a deal for short-term gain.

  • The A's traded for a center fielder not six months ago, but Mark Kotsay has been a disappointment (.258/.323/.300). Billy Beane, of course, doesn't have to be prodded to be aggressive in the trade market. The question is whether the A's could put together a strong enough package. Their current strength is in pitching, with hard-throwing Rich Harden in the #5 slot and prospect Joe Blanton posting a 2.22 ERA in the Pacific Coast League. Their depth in position-player prospects is at first base, and the Royals already have a logjam there. Whether the A's could get Beltran largely depends on whether the Royals would be interested in one of the Moneyball prospects, such as center fielder Nick Swisher, who isn't hitting well at Sacramento, or third baseman Mark Teahen, who is raking at Midland. A Teahen/Blanton/Justin Duchscherer package might be hard to turn down.

    Crazy notion: dangle the 2002 Cy Young Award winner in front of Allard Baird and see if he bites.

  • The Dodgers may have Milton Bradley in center field, but they also have Jason Grabowski in left, and Dave Roberts isn't much better--if at all--whenever he returns. Having cashed in Franklin Gutierrez for Bradley and sent Greg Miller to Dr. Frank Jobe, their system doesn't look as attractive as it did a couple of months ago. As with the A's, the Dodgers' best position-player prospect is a first baseman, James Loney.

    A willingness to trade Edwin Jackson, considered to be one of the three or four best pitching prospects in the game, could make the difference. Paul DePodesta has to understand the volatility of 21-year-old arms well enough to realize that Jackson's perceived value isn't going to get much higher, and that his greatest value may be in trade. Could Allard Baird resist the chance to have prodigies Jackson and Zach Greinke in his 2005 rotation?

  • The Padres are the best fit, all things considered. They have a need for Beltran, they have money to spend, they're going to be in a race, and they have a concentration of minor league talent at the upper levels. Josh Barfield was the 2003 Minor League Player of the Year, and although he's struggled at Double-A (.246/.286/.434), he still has considerable trade value. Jake Gautreau is back on track at Mobile, and could replace Joe Randa at third base. Freddy Guzman is a speedy center fielder with leadoff potential, the kind of player the Royals don't have. Add in a corner slugger like Jon Knott or Xavier Nady, and you have a collection of tradable names that no other organization can match.

    To tell the truth, the Padres can put together the best package of position players for the Royals. If Baird can pick up a third of his 2006 starting lineup in one move, he has to do so.

If the Royals are going to trade Beltran, a deal that could go down as the sale of the century, the best matches they're going to find are in the home of game shows, California. Which of these three teams is willing and able to pull the trigger on a deal will be rewarded with two to three months of greatness, and just may be the postseason's survivor.

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

Related Content:  Trade,  Royals Prospects,  The Who,  Trade To Dodgers

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