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July 28, 2011

Transaction Analysis

Beltran by the Bay

by Kevin Goldstein and Ben Lindbergh

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National League

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Traded OF-S Carlos Beltran and cash to the San Francisco Giants for RHP Zack Wheeler. [7/28]

The Mets were in the most interesting of situations heading into the deadline, as they had the best hitter on the market and no way to lose. The team wasn't going to the playoffs, Beltran's contract did not allow for arbitration, and therefore draft pick compensation, and while he's a fine player, he's not a marquee name who puts fannies in the seats. In other words, he had absolutely no tangible value to the Mets. If they traded him to the Marlins for a bag of balls, they would have won the deal, with the thought of them losing really only being relative to the offers they turned down.

To their credit, the Mets had no designs on saving money by dealing Beltran, nor seemingly in acquiring depth. Rather, from the outside, their decision-making process revolved around finding the single best prospect that could, leading to the rare one-for-one deal, as Beltran is bound for the Bay Area in return for 2009 first-round pick Zack Wheeler. It's easy to find dings in Wheeler, who has a 3.99 ERA in 16 starts for High-A San Jose, especially in his command and control and an arm slot that makes him susceptible to lefties, but he also has mid-90s heat, a sharp breaking ball, and one of those bodies that just looks like an All-Star starter. He has a front-of-the-rotation ceiling but hardly a good chance of reaching it, yet any pitcher with a non-zero chance of getting to that level is the kind of pitching prospect that everyone looks for—be it in trades, the draft, or through the international market.

I'm struck by a conversation I had with a scout late last night about how to rank and value prospects when it comes to trades. Two prospects were discussed. One was an infielder who arguably could reach the big leagues at some point in 2012, and the other was a pitching prospect who if everything works out, could be a No. 1, but like any pitching prospect comes with risk. Completely ignoring the shallow premise of TINSTAAPP (I don't even know if that's right), I said, “You have to take the ace.”

“That's where I'm at,” he replied. “When you watch the World Series and you see Tim Lincecum or Cliff Lee shoving it, you realize those are the guys that get you rings.”

There is such a thing as a pitching prospect, his name is Zack Wheeler, and while chances are good he'll be a big leaguer, chances are poor that he'll turn into a star. Nonetheless, he's exactly what the Mets needed.—Kevin Goldstein

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Traded RHP Zack Wheeler to the New York Mets for OF-S Carlos Beltran and cash. [7/28]

If you had any doubts that the Giants were a club in dire need of offensive assistance, consider this: a week before greeting Beltran with palm fronds, Bruce Bochy batted Mike Fontenot second and Aaron Rowand third with Cody Ross cleaning up and Emmanuel Burriss batting fifth, the kind of lineup even Cinemax might consider too seedy for late-night viewing. The Giants are akin to another NL contender, the Pirates, in that they’re a team almost entirely dependent on pitching; San Francisco’s collective .245 TAv only slightly surpasses Pittsburgh’s barely-better-than-the-Padres .243.

The difference is that Correia-Maholm-Morton-McDonald-Karstens doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Lincecum-Zito-Cain-Vogelsong-Bumgarner; one of these rotations is not like the other, and only San Francisco’s is truly capable of powering a playoff run. Thus, while the Pirates will likely walk the plank regardless of whether they pillage another team’s roster at the deadline instead of giving up their own gold as usual, the Giants have everything to gain by addressing their primary weakness.

San Francisco couldn’t have chosen a more effective means of shoring up its sagging offense than trading for Beltran, the best hitter—and perhaps the best player—available at the deadline. Brian Sabean took his team to October last season on the strength of a series of unexpectedly successful acquisitions that were equal parts inspired and ill-considered, but the “castoffs and misfits” who so famously reinforced the Giants in 2010 have little in common with Beltran, a Cooperstown-caliber player who’s hitting as well as he ever has. Microfracture surgery seems to have left his bat intact—which wasn’t at all clear after his .255/.341/.427 return in 2010, his worst offensive showing since his disappointing debut with the Mets—and his .325 TAv stands out as a career best, aside from the .333 mark he mustered in his more successful sophomore season in Flushing.

That said, Beltran isn’t quite the player he was several years ago; his 2006 efforts added over eight wins above replacement to the Mets, but he’s on pace to be worth roughly half that to his employers this season. Time may not yet have taken its toll on Beltran’s bat, but it has had an impact on his leather and legs. In his prime, Beltran was a superb center fielder and both a prolific and freakishly efficient basestealer; the Beltran of today is a subpar right fielder (though some of his struggles could be attributable to inexperience at the position) and a law-abiding baserunner, though when he does resort to thievery, he still almost always pulls off the heist.

Even at 34, Beltran will be a man among boys in the Giants’ lineup: the difference between his .325 TAv and Aubrey Huff’s .245 is the next-to-largest gap between a team’s first- and second-best hitters with a minimum of 300 plate appearances, second only to the difference between Jose Bautista and Adam Lind, which hardly even counts, given that Bautista was replaced by a replicant in September 2009.

Granted, the Giants have some better hitters who haven’t quite cracked that playing time threshold—Pablo Sandoval (.293), Nate Schierholtz (.282), and Pat Burrell (.273), to name a few—but none in the same class as their new right fielder. Actually, only two Giants—Huff and Miguel Tejada—have made as many as 300 plate appearances this season, the lowest total of any team. Either the Giants have had a lot of injuries to position players, or Bruce Bochy has been afraid to write anyone’s name into the lineup on a regular basis (mostly the former, but maybe a bit of both.)

Beltran would provide a bigger boost to the Giants if he played shortstop or catcher, since the right fielder whose playing time he’ll be taking has been their second-best bat. The Giants can make the most of their new outfield alignment by installing Schierholtz as their everyday left fielder and spelling him with Ross against lefties, leaving some combination of Ross, Rowand, and Andres Torres to divvy up the starts in center. That’s bad news for Pat Burrell, who’s currently recovering from a right foot strain, and forgotten man Brandon Belt, who has already fallen prey to Bochy’s pro-veteran bias despite Huff’s extended struggles at first base. Beggars without bats can’t be choosers, and however many holes his addition leaves unfilled, the Giants are a better, more balanced team with Beltran, if one somewhat poorer in prospects and payroll space (though Beltran could pay for himself in playoff-related revenue).

The Giants have the pitching depth at the major-league level to surrender a high-risk, High-A arm in pursuit of another pennant, and they can bid Beltran—an impending free agent—goodbye before Gary Brown’s arrival makes the outfield more crowded (though it would hardly come as a shock if Sabean chose to bring back an older player). Regardless of whether Beltran’s time in the Bay Area produces any images as enduring as a called strike three or a historic home run barrage, his presence makes it more likely that the Giants will spend time on a stage big enough for such memories to be made.—Ben Lindbergh

Thanks to Dan Turkenkopf for research assistance.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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