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November 10, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Beltran's Next Stop

by Jay Jaffe

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The doozy of a headscratcher that was Monday's Melky Cabrera/Jonathan Sanchez swap between the Royals and the Giants raised more questions than it answered. One of them—beyond "You woke me for this?"—is, "What does this mean for Carlos Beltran?" In recent weeks, it was thought that the Giants would work to retain the 34-year-old (35 on April 24) right fielder, whom they acquired from the Mets back on July 28, but the Melkman's delivery casts doubt upon that.

Though his arrival in San Francisco didn't help the Giants secure a playoff spot, and though he spent time on the disabled list for the third straight season, Beltran is coming off his best year since 2008. After spending approximately half of the two previous seasons on the disabled list due to a right knee injury that required surgery in January 2010—and what a mess that was—he played in 142 games and 598 plate appearances this past year, essentially matching his totals for 2009-2010. His .300/.385/.525 line outdid his work over the previous four years (a combined .285/.371/.499). Factor in the difficulty of his offensive environment(s) in a year when scoring was down, and his .318 True Average, which ranked 13th in the majors, comes out as the second-best season of his career, behind only his monster 2006 campaign.

Even so, Beltran’s shift from center field to right field significantly cut into his overall value; his 3.8 WARP was lower than his 2009-2010 total of 4.6, and his lowest full-season mark since the turn of the millennium. He was eight runs below average in right according to FRAA (slightly lower than other major systems' estimates), although there's little reason to think he couldn't improve a bit with experience in the corner.

So Beltran is a right fielder now, or perhaps a left fielder if a better fit comes along, and now that Willie Bloomquist is off the market, he's arguably the fourth-best hitter available on the free-agent market behind Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Jose Reyes. With that in mind, here's a look at some potential landing spots for him, all of which presume he would receive a multi-year deal and not simply be a one-year stopgap. I’ve ranked them from least likely to most according to my best estimate. If you disagree, don’t blame me, blame Beltran.

Cubs
The Case For: The .262/.332/.392 that Cubs right fielders hit in 2011 was in the bottom quartile in terms of OPS, and the two players who produced the best work there, Kosuke Fukudome and Reed Johnson, are gone. That leaves Tyler Colvin, who hit just .150/.204/.306 in 222 plate appearances. The Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime is certain to address the fact that the team finished second-to-last in the NL in walks; Beltran's 71 free passes would have ranked second on the team, 30 behind Carlos Peña but 25 ahead of any other Cub.

The Case Against: The Cubs lost 91 games and aren't likely to contend in 2012. Dropping an eight-figure annual salary on a 35-year-old right fielder isn't the best start to a rebuilding effort. 

Brewers
The Case For: Barring a miracle, the defending NL Central champions are poised to lose Fielder, so they'll have money to spend and production to make up. One school of thought has Corey Hart taking over first base; the 6-foot-6 behemoth played 179 games there in the minors, mostly in A-ball, before moving rightward on the defensive spectrum. The move could help the Brewers’ outfield defense; our numbers show Hart at +2 FRAA in 2011; he was 19 runs below average over the previous two seasons, assessments with which both UZR and DRS generally agree.

The Case Against: Alas, Doug Melvin says he won't consider moving Hart to first base. If he's not game for that, he’s unlikely to consider moving Ryan Braun either.

Yankees
The Case For: Admittedly it's a longshot, and certainly, it's seven years too late, but depending upon how Brian Cashman's other efforts to upgrade his rotation go, one option to improve would be to trade Nick Swisher, whose $10.25 million option was recently exercised, in a deal for a starter, then sign Beltran to fill the void. Thanks to presumptive designated hitter Jesus Montero's ability to spot behind the plate, the opportunity for Beltran to rest his legs on a regular basis would also be in play.

The Case Against: With a weighted average age of 30.6 years, Yankee hitters were the league's oldest in 2011. Given the minimal flexibility of their roster due to so many big-money deals, they hardly need to be taking on another midsized commitment.

Marlins
The Case For: After six straight years of ranking last in the NL in attendance, the Fish are heading into a new ballpark, and they could use a big name or two to help lure back a fan base they have spent decades screwing over. Having that big name be a Hispanic one wouldn't hurt either, given their location, and in fact, they've already registered their interest in Beltran. While they have Mike Stanton ensconced in right field, left fielder Logan Morrison is coming off a relatively disappointing .247/.330/.468 showing that saw him clash with the team brass and get sent to the minor leagues for thinking freely. Still just 24 and with two more years before arbitration eligibility, Morrison has significant value on the trade market. Another alternative would be keep Morrison, move Chris Coghlan into a utility role, and press their luck with Beltran in center, continuing Florida’s trend of churning through center fielders.

The Case Against: When it comes to his ballclub, Jeffrey Loria throws nickels around like they're manhole covers, and ditching a productive, cost-controlled commodity such as LoMo for a big-ticket item like Beltran isn't his style, even with the new ballpark. More likely, the Marlins put their money on Beltran's former teammate, Reyes, while Beltran avoids the embarrassment of the majors' ugliest uniforms.

Mariners
The Case For: Though Ichiro Suzuki’s .272/.310/.335 line was worse than what any other team got out of its right fielders, the Mariners don't seem to want to sit the 38-year-old right fielder, who played in 161 games, 151 in the field. Meanwhile, the M’s have a Vortex of Suck in left field that should be arbitration-eligible; from 2009-2011, Mariner left fielders have combined to hit .219/.290/.361. Beltran could deliver that while standing on one leg inside the mouth of an alligator.

The Case Against: No matter how good a center fielder Franklin Gutierrez may be, surrounding him with a pair of outfielders who are a combined 73 years old is marking him for death. Furthermore, signing a 35-year-old to an eight-figure annual salary shouldn't be a top priority for a team that lost 196 games over the past two seasons.

Giants
The Case For: They ranked 28th in the majors with a .244 True Average, and the return of Buster Posey is only one step in the right direction. Playing Cabrera—a career .275/.331/.398 hitter in over 3,300 PA—in right won't help either; while he's entering his age-27 season, he's coming off a year in which his True Average exceeded his career mark by 43 points. With the work of Beltran, Giants right fielders combined to hit .292/.343/.458, making that the lineup's second-most productive position after third base, so the bar for little Melky to reach is already comparatively high. Signing Beltran certainly fits Brian Sabean's gray-loving tendency, and it's not as though the Giants can't flip Cabrera or use him as a fourth outfielder.

The Case Against: The excitement in the Bay Area over Cabrera's arrival is so palpable that to trade him would be a crushing blow to a fan base that has suffered a whole year since their last championship. Given that he's averaged 144 games a year over the past six, who knows what bad habits he might get into while sitting on the bench and watching Beltran play?

Red Sox
The Case For: With J.D. Drew injured and ineffective, and neither Mike Cameron, Darnell McDonald, nor Josh Reddick able to pick up the slack, Boston's right fielders hit a combined .233/.299/.353, ranking second-to-last in the majors in OPS. The 24-year-old Reddick hit .280/.327/.457 overall, but the bulk of his production was packed into the 20 games he played in left field rather than the 53 he played in right; over 400 points of OPS separate the two splits. The .288 True Average he produced was 10 points above his 90th percentile PECOTA projection—in other words, it’s unlikely to be repeated—and the Sox may be looking for more certainty after back-to-back playoff misses. Given that Drew made $14 million last year, it's not like signing Beltran would expand the payroll appreciably.

The Case Against: With a weighted average of 30.0 years old, the Sox had the AL's second-oldest offense behind the Yankees. In Reddick, they have a player who could possibly provide a low-cost solution, a key concern on a team facing a more austere winter after last year's spending spree. Plus if the Sox do re-sign David Ortiz, Beltran's options to spot at DH will be limited.

Tigers
The Case For: Magglio Ordoñez is finally gone, and Jim Leyland can only juggle Brennan Boesch, Ryan Raburn, Delmon Young, and Don Kelly—a quartet that combined to hit .265/.311/.419 last year—at the two outfield corners for so long before it sinks the offense. Adding Beltran in right, and as a third middle-of-the-lineup force along with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, would be a significant upgrade for a team that won the AL Central last year despite its flaws. With the dead-weight salaries of Ordoñez and Carlos Guillen coming off the books, the money is there.

The Case Against: Ordoñez hit a thin .292/.356/.413 over the past three years, his age 35-37 seasons, and signing a similarly aged player who has leg issues may be a little too much déjà vu all over again.   

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

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