Early in the off-season, I wrote off any potential signing which involved surrendering a first round pick so I hadn't given any real thought to any of them, Adrian Beltre included. As the off-season unfolded, and suitors for the third baseman developed, and rumors spread about his demands, I was content to know that the Jays really didn't even have to face the temptation to consider that price - a price at which I had bought into the popular opinion was too high.
But the moving pieces have shuffled around to the point where Beltre is sitting out there with only the Angels among the monied teams which have an obvious place for him. Earlier reports about wanting 5 years at 16 or 17 million a year are now in the rear view mirror without the Red Sox to bid against. It's time to take another look. Or a first look, in my case.
Now, let me clear up a couple of points on the front end:
1. If you are one of those folks for whom a first round pick is sacred and must never be surrendered, I don't think anything I'm going to say here will change your mind. I DO take the pick seriously, but I'm confident enough in AA's ability to find quality throughout the draft that I'm willing to consider it - particularly in a deep class.
2. I'm not interested in a bidding war, or in paying Beltre's (seemingly) ridiculous asking price (if the reports were true). The following case is a case for slipping in the back door and scooping the Angels on a deal which might seem expensive but is just enough to get the heist done.
With that said, let's dig in.
The common refrain against Beltre is that he only hit well in contract years. It is true that he had his two best year in contract years, but he also had one of his two worst years in a contract year. In fact, in his last 7 seasons he's had two monster years, and two abysmal years. These virtually balance each other out. Given that the two monster seasons were the year before and the year after his time in Seattle, and it's that period I want to take a closer look at first.
During the five years he spent in the Pacific Northwest, Beltre posted a collective OPS of .759 but he had dramatic home/road splits. I'd like to call this "little known" but I think everyone knows that Beltre didn't hit well in the huge home park the Mariners play in. But I don't think everybody - at least among those who downplay Beltre - really appreciate how much better he hit on the road.
Over those five years, Beltre's OPS at home was .717, and his OPS on the road was .799! For reference, in 2010 the road average would have ranked 8th in the majors among qualifying third basemen, the home average would have ranked 16th. And all that includes the two disaster years.
Here's a list of those five years, with the overall OPS, then the road OPS, then the road OPS+
'05 - .716 - .736 - 98
'06 - .792 - .805 - 113
'07 - .802 - .858 - 127
'08 - .784 - .862 - 134
'09 - .683 - .717 - 96
So. If we're speaking of the road Beltre as a true representation of the hitter you are buying now, then his road OPS would have ranked 15th, 8th, 5th, 6th, and 20th among qualifying major league 3B in the majors. One league average year, three excellent years (in relation to the league) and one abominable year.
Furthermore, if you take the road numbers in Seattle, and combine those with the two years which bookeneded that period, his slash lines look like this:
His overall line over the last seven years without alteration looks like this:
Seems to me, that's your reasonable range of expectations. True, he's older now than he was when he hit 48 homers, but his work in Boston last year exceeded the high end of this range. And we've already killed the contract-year myth. If Beltre is an .820 hitter, then he'd be a top 10 3rd baseman (in the majors) in any of the last 10 years. I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that for most of the next five years, Beltre can be easily in the top 10-12 hitters at his position, albeit no one can rule out an injury plagued season like 2009, or an inexplicable fluke year). In fact, I'd find it marginally unrealistic to suggest he won't be.
Combine that with what some argue is the best defense in the game (I've an irrational commitment to Scott Rolen in that regard) and you have a top shelf guy. But what's such a guy worth? Fangraphs valued him at $68 million over the five years n Seattle (admittedly, few are the occasions when a players actual pay matches well with Fangraphs calculations) over a period when he was paid about $13 million a year. If you were getting that player, without the monster years, then you'd be getting some marginal value if you paid him, say, $12 mil a year according to their system.
Comparing him to other third basemen really doesn't work. some of them are clearly overpaid (A-Rod, Michael Young, Aramis Ramirez) and others are young players on team friendly extensions (Longoria, Zimmerman). If you look at the most expensive long-term deals, in terms of AAV, you can eliminate several hitters either because they were signed at a much younger age, or because they do not profile as similar players.
One obvious comparison is Torii Hunter, who was going into his age 32 season when he was signed for 5yr/$18 per. He had a very similar offensive total over his previous 7 seasons (albeit without the extremes) and a sterling defensive reputation. In this sense, you can see why his agent set the goal he did. If you have a competitive market, that's the sort of thing you shoot for. and while I wouldn't bitch if AA spent Rogers' money so extravagantly (until and unless it was demonstrated to be a burden) I'm not really arguing that the Jays ought offer him a $16-18 million AAV.
Rather, I think this is a situation in which the concept of when our window to compete is works for us a bit. It would be pointless for the Jays to sign Beltre for three years. and it might be years that has the Angels hesitant. If the Jays were to sign Beltre, it ought to be five years. This would carry them deep into the years in which they expect to be a force. One thing you'd be sure to get over that time is impeccable defense. The very best defenders age well with the glove in most cases. This helps the pitching, and it helps all the other infielders including a potentially shaky 1B. As a hitter, you probably get a guy who declines over the life of the deal from an .850ish OPS to a .750ish OPS, but on a team in which - if things go well, young hitters take on more and more of the burden of offense.
Now, it's true Brett Lawrie needs a place to play if he pans out - but the answer to that is right in front of us. Jose Batista has one more season before free agency. If he repeats his previous success, he'll get a bigger annual pay than Beltre from someone else and leave us with a couple of picks (one to make up for what we lose on Beltre, in a sense). If he doesn't return anywhere close to that level, then whether he stays or goes, he's not an affront to Brett Lawrie playing RF if he is deemed ready. There's also the 2B option but that's more complex.
Bottom line: In studying the matter, I've convinced myself that if we can get Beltre for five years on a deal worth no more than $60-70 million, it will be good value and a quality move.
UPDATE: MLBTR had this, today, from a column by Buster Olney -
The Athletics would talk to free agent third baseman Adrian Beltre again if the player is willing. Beltre reportedly ignored Oakland's five-year, $64MM offer, which isn't much lower than the offer the Angels pulled yesterday. Beltre appears to crave $85-90MM over five years, or a sixth year.
The Angels pulling their offer leaves him floating, on the other hand the A's offer would seem to constitute a floor if it's correct. Since this is Scott Boras we are speaking of, it's not like he's going to cave. The report suggests the Angels offer might have been for $70 million, and goes on to suggest that the $18 per that Werth got is the target (which is consistent with what I discussed above). If it's true that 5/70 is the current standing offer ("withdrawn" being just a negotiating ploy) then logically you are either going to have to add a sixth year, or more money per-year.
I think my reaction might be to put in a sixth year option with some reasonably attainable incentive clause which would guarantee it. Something that would end up being 6/85 if it vested or some such.