Thursday, December 22, 2011
Reaction: Cardinals sign Carlos Beltran
Luckily for Cardinals fans, the blow had to lose some of its sting as the Cardinals are still the reigning MLB champs. With Pujols gone, the Cardinals turned to improving their on-field product with an eye towards defending their championship. Today, the Cardinals did just that, spending money that Pujols left on the table to sign Carlos Beltran to a 2 year/26 million dollar deal that includes a full no trade clause.
The Kansas City Royals selected Carlos Beltran in the 1995 MLB amateur draft with the 49th pick overall. The second-round pick moved fairly quickly through the minors, posting an impressive .948 OPS as a CF across two levels (A+ and AA) in 1998. That performance earned him a cup of coffee in the major leagues that year where he held his own. The next year Beltran announced his arrival with a bang, producing a .791 OPS and posting 4.4 WAR in 156 games.
Beltran was hampered by injuries in 2000, but came back strong, producing 17.8 WAR over the next three years, establishing himself as one of the best young players in the game of baseball. In 2004, the Royals traded Beltran to the Astros, where he played out the rest of the year At the conclusion of the season, Beltran became a free agent and signed a massive 7 year/119 million dollar deal with the New York Mets.
As a Met, Beltran started off slowly, only producing 2.7 WAR his first year with the club. In 2006, Beltran became an elite player again, putting up 21 WAR over the next three years, from 2006 to 2008. In 2009, Beltran began the season shortly after turning 32 and his age began to show. Knee troubles limited him to less than 100 games each season over the next two season, and Beltran only managed 3.8 WAR, including .8 WAR in 2010 as Beltran was forced to undergo preseason knee surgery that year.
Beltran bounced back in 2011, hitting .300/.385/.525 over the course of the year, while playing below-average, but adequate defense in right field. Beltran's bounce back was good enough that the San Francisco Giants traded for Beltran at the trade deadline, giving the Mets a very good prospect in pitcher Zack Wheeler. The trade happened even despite the Giants knowledge that Beltran could not be offered arbitration due to a clause in his contract, meaning the Giants had no chance to receive draft picks during the offseason.
On their way to a World Series win last year, the Cardinals traded away their center fielder Colby Rasmus to the Blue Jays for starting pitcher Edwin Jackson and bullpen help. As a result, Jon Jay moved to center field, while Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman remained in left and right field respectively. However, with Pujols now gone, Berkman will be able to shift to first base, a position he is more suited to play. That left a hole in right field, a hole that Beltran will now fill.
Last year, Berkman was tied for second on the Cardinals in WAR, producing 5.0 WAR despite a -14.4 UZR/150 in right field. By moving to 1B, Berkman could plausibly gain WAR if he has a similar year with the bat. Even if he doesn't produce more, it very likely Berkman will be a similarly valuable player. Therefore, Beltran will really only need to reproduce Pujol's production.
Last year, Pujols only put up 5.1 WAR during a down year. Beltran put up 4.7 WAR. While it's likely that Pujols will out perform Beltran next year, Beltran only needs to replicate Pujols's production from last year to make the Cardinals as good this coming year as they were last year. Beltran might not play quite that well, but it's a good bet he will come within a win or two, meaning the Cardinals will only need to improve slightly in other areas to have a successful regular season. Look no further than the starting rotation, where the Cardinals will get a healthy Adam Wainwright back after missing all of last year due to injury. While an injury comes with inherent risk, Wainwright is only 30 and is coming off two back-to-back seasons with 5.7+ WAR prior to the injury.
Now, as far as producing on the field, Beltran comes with more risk than Pujols. He's never been as good as Pujols, despite coming close early in his career. More importantly, he's entering the twilight of his career, while Pujols is still a year or two away from that threshold. In addition, Beltran is an outfielder, who relies on his range, only a few years removed from a major knee surgery. But, Beltran also comes much cheaper than Pujols. Pujols's contract details have not been released (according to Cot's at least), but the average annual value of his contract with the Angels is 25.4 million dollars prior to incentives. On the other hand, the Cardinals will only have to pay Beltran around 13 million dollars (the average annual value of his contract) next year. That leaves over 12 million dollars left that the Cardinals could spend. To me, that seems like plenty of money to make up the difference between Pujols and Beltran, minus the re-addition of Wainwright. Overall, great signing by the Cardinals that should help them stay competitive in the NL Central, especially in the face of the Cincinnati Reds recent moves.