09 January 2005

Carlos the Great

Erstwhile Houston Astros centerfielder Carlos Beltran has reportedly agreed to a seven-year, $119 million deal with the New York Mets this weekend, a far cry from the ten-year, $200 million figures offered by Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, just after the World Series. The agreement comes on the heels of the expired negotiation window the Astros had with Beltran, which closed Saturday at midnight. It was reported that Boras, had indicated that they were generally satisfied with the Astros' seven-year, $108 million offer, but that they desired a full no-trade clause, an issue on which Astros owner (and, if I might add, Wise Businessman) Drayton McClane would not budge.

There are still, apparently, certain details for the two parties to iron out, such as salary structure and deferred payments, if any, but the contract is expected to be signed Monday with a press conference following as soon as Tuesday. Thus will end the long chase of this winter's greatest free agent prize, with the winner coming from the city, but not the franchise, almost everyone expected.

This signing, and the lack of its having been attributed to the Yankees, offers us a few interesting tidbits. For one thing, the Yanks may instead pursue Carlos Delgado to split the first base/DH time with Jason Giambi. He'll be a lot less expensive, and they can keep Bernie Williams in the outfield, where he belongs.

For another, there's the publicity thing. Normally, George Steinbrenner wouldn't think of allowing the Mets to steal his hard-earned, back-page publicity, and wouldn't hesitate to snatch up a commodity like Beltran, one that could help his team and keep the Mets' status as second-class citizens of the Big Apple well in hand.

Thirdly, though probably most important, was the money. ESPN's Darren Rovell did n a nice job last week of breaking down the taxes and other economic ramifications for Beltran, as well as for his suitors. For the Yankees to have given Beltran an offer comparable to Houston's, it would have cost them over $23 million next year alone in salary and luxury taxes, just to match Houston's $16 million. While Beltran's certainly talented, it seems that Yankee brass did not deem him more valuable than Alex Rodriguez, who's due to make only $21 million in 2005, or Derek Jeter ($18.9).

This is perhaps the first clear-cut example we've seen that the Luxury Tax is actually having the desired effect, albeit a little late. The tax was clearly structured to deter the Yankees from spending so much on free agents, so much so that some have even started referring to it as the "Yankee Tax", but to this point, it hadn't seemed to curtail them at all. Interestingly, there are rumors that Scott Boras actually offered the Yankees a discount of sorts, indicating that Beltran wanted to join the Yankees so desperately that he would have taken less than $100 million for seven years, but even then the Yankees didn't bite. Even at that rate, it would have cost the Yankees an average of $20 million per season for that seven year stretch, when luxury taxes are taken into account

The Mets have been essentially stinking up the joint ever since they went to the World Series in 2000. They've finished 16th, 13th, 15th and 12th in runs scored in the National League in the last four seasons, respectively, and they naturally hope that an infusion of youth and talent from their new centerfielder will help to remedy that ailment.

But what are they really getting? Tim Kurkjian seems to think that Beltran's getting this money largely because of how well he performed during the two weeks his Astros were in the playoffs last October. He sure was impressive, but, Tim tells us, "

The 2004 season was Beltran's first 30-home run season. He has five 100-RBI seasons, but none with as many as 110. His career slugging percentage is .490, which is 109 points lower than Manny Ramirez's. His career on-base percentage is .353, 79 points lower than Todd Helton's.

That's a little unfair, isn't it? So he has a lower career slugging percentage than Manny Ramirez...so do all but seven players who've ever played! His OBP may be lower than Todd Helton's, but again, Helton gets a LOT of help from the thin Rocky Mountain air, so it's not really a fair criticism, is it? Why doesn't Kurkjian just compare Beltran to Mickey Mantle while he's at it?

He does. Turns out (surprise!) Beltran comes up a little short there too. What a pity he's not quite as good as one of the three greatest centerfielders in history. Why doesn't he just hang up his spikes now and retire, before he embarrasses himself any further?

Well, because he's still the best centerfielder in the game, that's why. When Beltran won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1999, the only, and I mean ONLY, knock on his game was that he didn't walk enough. He hit .293 with 22 homers, 108 RBI, 112 runs scored, 27 doubles and 27 steals, but he only walked 46 times and he struck out 123 times. He was 22 years old. At that age, you can forgive a little impatience, can't you?

You can, especially if he develops patience as he ages, which is exactly what Beltran has done. Now, at age 27, he walks a LOT more, 92 times in 2004, against only 101 strikeouts. He may have hit only .267 for the year, but his on-base percentage was actually 30 points higher than when he hit .293 his rookie year.

He hit a career-high 38 homers last season, but despite spending much of his time in hitter-friendly parks (Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City and the JuiceBox in Houston), Beltran's stats were not inflated significantly by park factors. In fact, he hit only .225 at home, with an OPS about 250 points lower than his road numbers in 2004. Interestingly, though, this appears to be a fluke, as Beltran's home/road splits for his career are remarkably well-balanced:

       G    AB    AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   

Home 445 1705 .292 .360 .486 .846
Away 440 1762 .276 .347 .494 .841

What he loses in batting average he makes up for in power, so it evens out. This essentially tells us that Beltran's new employers don't have to worry too much that he's somehow a creation of his environment, as they should be for, oh say, Todd Helton.

Beltran's age places him right in his theoretical "natural prime" as a hitter, meaning that the first three years or so of this contract should be the best of his career, barring injuries and/or a binge on steroids starting at age 36. Most hitters' power numbers increase as they enter their late twenties and early thirties, so that 38 in the HR column may not turn out to be his high water mark after all.

Beltran is also considered to be an above-average defensive centerfielder, and Shea Stadium is not a place that's particularly kind to fly balls anyway, so that should help his defensive numbers. Furthermore, his 192-to-23 career steal-to-caught stealing ratio is perhaps the best ever for a player who's that prolific at the art of the base swipe. A quick search on god of the machine revealed nobody born after 1885 to meet these criteria (190+ steals, fewer than 25 times caught), and the only reason for all the old-timers on the list is that they didn't even start recording caught stealings regularly until 1915.

So make no mistake. Carlos Beltran was far and away the best player on the free agent market this season, even if it wasn't the strongest market we've seen. And he'll be one of the best investments that new Mets GM Omar Minaya has ever made, whether he leads the Amazin's to the playoffs or not.

No, he's not the Mick, but what he is, is Great, and Great will just have to suffice for New York.

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