Carlos Beltran has quietly put together a Hall-of-Fame career by being good at basically every aspect of the game and after a strong age-36 season and another brilliant postseason, he is hitting the open market for the third time in his career. He is no longer much on defense or when running the bases, but his bat remains excellent and his instincts for the game are second to none. Any team in need of help on offense would be thrilled to add him to their lineup, making him a name that should get tossed around tons this off-season.
Beltran hit .296/.339/.491 with 24 home runs for the NL Central Champion Cardinals in 2013, making him 32 percent better than the average hitter (by wRC+). At 36-years old, he showed that he still has power and excellent bat-to-ball ability. However, his walk rate, which was beyond elite in his prime, hit a career low at just six percent and his defense was given harsh reviews by the advanced metrics. He has a history of knee injuries and his speed has been in decline since at least 2009, so the poor showing with the glove is not particularly surprising. Given those concerns, he is probably best suited for an American League team where he can occasional slip into the DH role and save his legs and the clubs outfield defense. Even so, his offensive production is still good for many National League teams to tolerate his decreasing range and keep him in right every day.
There is mutual interest between the Yankees and Beltran according to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News and that makes a lot of sense. The Yankees offense was 10th in the game in runs scored in 2013, but that undersells just how bad they really were. They ranked 23rd in home runs despite playing in one of the most home run-friendly parks in the game and after adjusting for Yankee Stadium's effects, only the Marlins and White Sox were less productive on offense.
The Yankees will get Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Brett Gardner back next season to help turn things around, but they may lose Alex Rodriguez to suspension and Curtis Granderson is hitting the free agent market so adding offense is vital. Beltran could replace Granderson's bat if they are unable to resign him, but even if they hang on to their power hitting outfielder, Beltran would be a significant step up from Ichiro on offense and the ability to slide him into the DH spot would minimize the impact of his declining abilities on defense. That would give New York too many outfield/DH bats with Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells still on the roster, but Wells was a major reason the Yankees offense was so anemic last season, making him a pricy non-tender candidate. Beltran and Soriano could easily share both roles and see plenty of playing time with Ichiro relegated to a fourth outfielder role.
The Orioles got very little production from the corner outfield positions in 2013 and almost nothing from their DHs. Everyday right fielder Nick Markakis had a disappointing season in 2013, hitting.271/.329/.356. He is signed through 2014 with an option for 2015, however, so Baltimore will probably hope for a bounce back season next year. Left field is less secured. Nate McLouth put up solid numbers while seeing the most playing time there, but the Orioles searched in vain all season for a platoon partner to keep him away from lefties.
While the Orioles outfield can live without an upgrade, the team must do something about their Designated Hitter role. Baltimore DHs combined to hit .245/.293/.405 for a full 13 percent worse than league average. Adding Beltran would be a massive upgrade there and because he would still see time in the outfield, the team would also be adding depth and flexibility. With Beltran on board, any right-handed bat could give them a platoon option to match with McLouth through a DH-LF platoon rotation. Baltimore should have money to spend, with under $50 million committed to next season, but they will also see some expensive arbitration raises so a player in the middle of the market like Beltran might be their best option.
While the trading top prospect Wil Myers for James Shields and Wade Davis did provide the Royals rotation with the frontline starter they were hoping for, it left a gaping hole in right field. Incumbent right fielder Jeff Francoeur performed poorly enough to get himself DFA'd. A Replacement platoon of David Lough and August acquisition Justin Maxwell was an improvement, but that those two fourth-outfielder types can't match Beltran's potential production at the plate even in combination.
The biggest obstacle for the Royals will obviously be affording the veteran star. If they are bidding against teams like the Yankees, Orioles, and Mariners, they are going to lose. However, with Billy Butler firmly entrenched as their everyday DH, they can probably offer Beltran more playing time in right than other American League club, which could appeal to him and possibly even swing things in KC's favor.
Potential Dark Horse Bidders
Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik is the final year of his contract and he needs to turn the Mariners around fast if he wants get a chance to be the one to benefit from the strong farm system he has built in his tenure. If he can get one or two big pieces like Ellsbury in place, a veteran like Beltran, who will require a much shorter commitment, might be next on his list. He will have plenty of money to spend and an opening in right field to fill with Michael Morse and Franklin Gutierrez both on the open market.
The White Sox
Rick Hahn surprised the baseball world by landing Jose Dariel Abreu and that deal strongly implies that he is looking to rebuild the White Sox in short order. With Alex Rios gone, Beltran is good fit for the White Sox and the team has money to spend, with under $70M committed to next season and few expensive arbitration cases ahead of them. Beltran would take the pressure off newly acquired prospect Avisail Garcia in the short term and potentially replace the increasingly unproductive Adam Dunn at DH after the 2014 season.
The Cardinals have a number of strong reasons to extend Beltran the qualifying offer, ensuring they are compensated if he leaves, but they may not pursue re-signing him all that aggressively if he rejects it. The Cards have one of the top outfield prospects in the game in Oscar Taveras and he has been seen as the likely successor to Beltran since Beltran landed in St. Louis. Taveras suffered an ankle injury in May of 2013 and after attempting to play though the pain with little success, he underwent season-ending surgery in August, keeping him from making his major league debut with the Cardinals this season. Prior to the injury he was still flashing the skills that made him both Baseball America and MLB.com's number-3 prospect in the game prior to the start of the season, hitting .306/.341/.462 in Triple-A over 186 plate appearances. St. Louis may have intended to simply move on and slot Taveras in at right next season, but the ankle injury adds new risks to that plan for a team that is currently at the top of the baseball world with nowhere to go but down.
To protect against a setback from Taveras next season, St. Louis might look to Beltran. Unless the ankle injury has significantly slowed him down, Taveras could even start his career in center, opening the door for St. Louis to keep Beltran even more. Center fielder John Jay has been a solid producer for the Cardinals for the past few seasons, but Tavaers's bat would probably represent an upgrade and Jay could still see time filling in for veteran Matt Holliday and Beltran on rest days or in inter-league road games. St. Louis has been dedicated to building from within, but they have also put a great deep of value on depth and keeping Beltran would ensure added depth for another World Series run in 2014.
What will he get paid?
Beltran is a difficult player to find adequate comps for. He is a switch-hitter with excellent plate discipline and bat-to-ball ability to go with plus-power, skills that typically command high prices on the free agent market. He is also going to be 37 next season. His once-elite defense and base running ability have completely deteriorated. Teams will not hesitate to give playing time in the outfield, but he adds little value in that respect. In 2011, he opted to stay in the National League in part to avoid being pushed into a DH role, signing the two-year/$26 million deal with the Cardinals he has just finished. This time around, the best offers will almost certainly come from the American League and his willingness to transition into a lesser role is going to have a major impact on where he lands.
That two-year deal worked out perfectly for Beltran in many ways. While his defense may have declined, he still managed to stay healthy and put to bed some of the concerns over the knee injuries that cost him so much time in his final seasons with the Mets. Top-tier designated hitters have faced a tough market in recent years but even Beltran's diminished ability to play the field puts his value above a true all-bat player like David Ortiz or Jim Thome. While teams could reasonable view him as better suited for the DH, almost everyone listed above will want him in the outfield on a semi-regular basis in 2014 and that will boost his value above the typical $10-$11 million a year that DH-types typically top out at. The qualifying offer with hurt him if he receives, however and it is very possible that he will recognize that and accept it. An average annual value over $14 million on a multi-year deal would be an overpay for Beltran and if wants to keep playing in the outfield, risking a pay cut in 2015 could be worth it to him. That dynamic makes the offer risky for the Cardinals as well, especially if they are dedicated to moving on next season. I think they will extend it and Beltran will feel some impact from the added cost.
Even so, it is easy to imagine a team extending him another two-year/$26 million deal. His age makes any multi-year deal a gamble, and I can't see a National League committing that much money to him beyond 2014 without a DH spot to stash him in. But for an American League club, however, around $13 million a season seems reasonable and if the bidding gets crazy even earning a third year through a vesting or team option might be possible.