Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Free Agent Target: Carlos Beltran

(Beltran's lone defensive highlight of 2013)

When Curtis Granderson got knocked out of the lineup in Spring Training and then again in May, the Yankee outfield was exposed for how weak and shallow it had become.  After letting Swish walk, the Yanks were left with a light-hitting trio of Gardner, Ichiro, and panic trade acquisition Vernon Wells to hold down the fort.  There was no amount of luck, black magic, or age-defying skill rebound that was going to make Ichiro and Wells productive, above-average hitters for an entire season, and predictably the offensive output of the Yankee outfield took a nosedive.

Enter Carlos Beltran.  Once coveted by Yankee fans and writers alike in the mid-2000s, the Bombers missed out on him when he was in his prime and now have a second opportunity to add him to the mix this offseason.  He's not the 5-tool stud he used to be, and I'm on the record as saying I don't think pursuing him on a multi-year deal should be a top priority for the team, but there's no denying that Beltran would be a major upgrade in right field next year over any and everybody currently under contract.

As a hitter, Beltran is everything the Yankees need in their lineup.  He's a switch hitter who hits for average and power and is the rare breed of switch hitter who's been almost equally productive from both sides of the plate.  He owns an .864 OPS and .369 wOBA against righties and an .886/.376 against lefties for his career.  The drastic difference in HR output against right-handed pitching is more a byproduct of a larger sample size than anything else, although he has been more dangerous from the left side of the plate in recent years.  Overall Beltran is a .283/.359/.496 career hitter with 8 ASG selections, 3 Gold Gloves, 2 Silver Slugger awards, and 2 top 10 MVP finishes under his belt.  He was also the 1999 American League Rookie of the Year.

What detracts from Beltran's impressive career numbers is the trend some of his peripherals have taken as he's aged.  He's 36 right now, will turn 37 early next season, and there are already signs that age-related regression has crept into his game.  Never a high strikeout guy but always a hitter with a strong ability to work counts and take pitches, Beltran saw his BB rate dip to 6.3% in 2013.  It was the first time since 2005 that he'd posted a BB rate below 10.5% and the implication there is that he may have adjusted his approach at the plate to cheat on the fastball and counteract declining bat speed.

Speaking of speed, Beltran's foot speed and athleticism have seriously declined in the past few years.  Once a 30-30 guy, he stole just 2 bases this season and has stolen 4 or fewer in 3 of the last 4 seasons.  He's also gone from being an asset as an outfielder to a defensive liability, and if you're a believer in defensive metrics you'll see that they've painted him as well below-average for the last few seasons.  There's no denying that age has started to take its toll on Beltran, and even though he managed to stay healthy during his time in St. Louis he comes with a checkered injury history and a very real health-related red flag.

Beltran also received a qualifying offer from the Cardinals, and as with Brian McCann that will be the big determining factor the Yankees have to weigh.  Age-related regression and injury risks being what they are, Beltran still hit .296/.339/.491 this year with 24 HR and 30 2B.  That's light years better than what Ichiro and Wells did and even if he takes another step back in his regression in 2014, he's almost a lock to out-produce them again.

The Yankees will have to decide where they stand on truly making an effort to improve the lineup and contend in 2014, how much they are willing to commit to Beltran in terms of years and dollars, and if they're willing to give up their 1st round pick to sign him.  If they're serious about contending, he's a great fit.  If they just want to tread water again and put the focus on staying below the luxury tax threshold, it might not be worth signing him and sacrificing the pick.

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