December 5, 2016
This Is 40
Signed OF/DH-S Carlos Beltran to a one-year, $16 million contract. [12/3]
It’s not shocking to have learned that Carlos Beltran is returning to Houston–perhaps the home of his greatest success–for his age-40 season. What’s shocking is how gentle his decline has been, and that he may be able to add legitimate offensive value as a designated hitter to this team despite entering his fifth decade of life. The $16 million doesn’t immediately seem like an overpay for a bat-only player because he’s hit at a level 10-20 percent better than league average even as his career has wound down and there will only be a year-long commitment to bring in one of the game’s greatest switch-hitters.
Since this may be his last Transaction Analysis–after all, he’s 40 and his new contract came complete with the no-trade clause the Astros wouldn’t give him a dozen years ago–it might be time to analyze his whole career. I’ll start with my hottest take: despite a near-complete lack of black ink and hardware, Beltran is a Hall of Famer. Start with a simple Baseball-Reference Play Index search of the best switch-hitters of all time, over their careers. In over 10,000 plate appearances, he has the 17th-highest OPS+ (121) among switch-hitters. As an aside, the only former or current Astros switch-hitter above him on this list is Lance Berkman, who is second all time behind Mickey Mantle.
But being 20 percent or so better than the league average as a hitter isn’t his entire game; for a stretch, he was one of the league’s elite defensive players and baserunners as well, a true five-tool player over the course of his career. He won three Gold Gloves, sure, but he also put up tremendous fielding numbers in years before his 2006-2008 award run. There’s a powerful argument that Beltran deserved the 2006 MVP award (he led all of baseball in WARP with 9.7 that season), winning the Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger in that season. And over the course of his two-decade career, each of the three major WAR metrics have him worth between about 68-71 wins; WARP is the low man at 67.9 wins. Still, that number is usually good enough to push you into Cooperstown.
The current version of Beltran is decidedly not that five-tool player, nor anything that remotely resembles his Hall of Fame peak. For one, that defense and baserunning skill is dust. He’s an outfielder in name only and best served in a designated hitter role, which is fine since the Astros already employ plus defensive outfielders like Josh Reddick and George Springer. Note that he also cost the Yankees and Rangers almost five runs due to his work on the basepaths. His only appropriate position is hitter, and expect someone like Marwin Gonzalez to run for him in close-and-late cases.
This past season also saw Beltran as a much more dangerous hitter against left-handed pitching than against righties, even though his splits have been about even over the course of his career. (He put more balls on the ground against righties, and hit considerably more line drives against southpaws.) He still hits for power and possesses a sterling approach, but he’s decidedly a different hitter than he was at his peak.
The signing itself kind of has two meanings for the Astros. Not only is it a powerful commitment to finally spend big money after years of penny-pinching, it’s also creating a tie to the last great era of Houston’s success: the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Beltran was famously brought in by the ’04 Astros at the trade deadline–in hindsight the cost to the team was peanuts–and he put forth an all-time effort. In his 90 regular-season games with the Astros, he posted his usual strong offensive numbers (.314 True Average) and added tremendous speed and defense as well.
Nothing compares to his Bondsian run in the 2004 playoffs, when he hit eight homers in 12 games, stole six bases, and offered up a .435/.536/1.022 triple-slash line. Still, the Astros couldn’t escape the NLCS, nor could they win the World Series the next year after Beltran departed via free agency. The Astros are now attempting to prep themselves for a deep postseason run, and Beltran–one of the game’s elite postseason players, 2015 and 2016 aside–helps shore up the team and add even more position player depth. He and former-and-current teammate Brian McCann add the kind of invaluable postseason veteran presence that teams fete and might actually help, even though we have no way of quantifying it.
Perhaps this last ride with the Astros will help make up for the bad taste left in the mouths of Houstonians who felt like Beltran did them dirty by spurning Texas for New York after 2004? Perhaps he’ll finally fall off, or his knees will limit him even more than they already have. Only time will tell, but a couple of ALCS or World Series dingers will make all the difference in the world.