In case you haven't heard, the Rangers brought in a third Beltre to the organization this week, adding free agent third baseman Adrian to the list with long-barred pitcher Omar, and centerfield prospect Engel. Instantly, this is the biggest splash of the Texas off-season, which once held visions of Cliff Lee. While Beltre does not have the name value of Lee, he is absolutely a great fit with the Rangers and is a likely significant improvement for the 2011 team. The question is how much of an improvement, and is the deal worth it.
To start with, there are things to be excited about with A. Beltre. Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing, resident baseball genius and SB Nation Mariners blogger, stopped by Lone Star Ball to offer his opinions on Beltre after having watched him for so many years in Seattle. It is made pretty clear that Beltre was a lot of fun for Mariners fans to watch over the years.
Adrian Beltre is just a treat to watch. He’s a treat to watch first and foremost because he’s good, but also because he so clearly just enjoys what he does. He has a lot of fun playing the game, and he does little to hide it. We want our favorite players to act professional, but we also like to see their personalities shine through, and I think Beltre’s a guy who’s going to fit right in with the Rangers’ young clubhouse.
Without watching him every day, it can be hard to know what Beltre brings to the table beyond the stats you can read at Baseball-Reference, and Sullivan did a good job of letting us know what we are getting. A lot of what made the 2010 Rangers so great was not just that whole World Series thing, but how fun that team was to watch with their antics and personalities and the fun they seemed to be constantly having. Even before the pennant was secure, even before the division was locked away, the team was memorable for that aspect, and it seems as though Adrian Beltre may just be someone who accentuates that attitude, helping it survive for another memorable season in a row.
And you should be very excited for the first time Elvis Andrus tries to touch Beltre's head.
Sullivan does bring up potential frustrations from watching Beltre. Among them, he is a supremely talented player who seems like he could grab more out his abilities than he does. Few things enrage sports fans more than someone getting less out of what they got than they could. Sullivan also describes him as a hacktastick, hitter who swings for it all on everything, and he's got the low walk totals (about 45 for every 650 plate appearances) to back it up, taking particular note of his preponderance for being fooled on wicked breaking balls from right handers. From the standpoint of how frustrating someone can be to watch, there are some flags raised for Beltre.
Still, Sullivan and his Lookout Landing readers were clearly able to enjoy following his time in Seattle, and as Sullivan himself says, if you look past those issues and look at the greater picture of what he contributes, you should be happy with the end results. The plate discipline could be better, and perhaps he could get more out of his talents than he does, but as long as he produces, fans should probably be happy.
And producing is what Beltre was brought here for. The antics fitting with the Rangers' clubhouse may be fun, but he has been signed to make the team better than they were going to be without him, and he's likely going to do so.
Over recent history, there seems to have come the perception that Beltre only performs in contract years, and is garbage the rest of the time. Quite simply, that is incorrect. His two best seasons were contract years, including probably the greatest non-Bonds year of the 2000s and a year in 2010 that would get MVP support many years when Josh Hamilton didn't destroy baseballs. The rest of the time hasn't been a bust, though, it has just been not quite as good.
Indeed, at face value, Beltre's offense has never looked particularly good outside of the final year in Los Angeles and his one year in Boston. Only four times has he managed an OBP higher than .330. Only four times has he managed an OPS over .800. Looking deeper than OPS, his career weighted On Base Average (works like OPS, with refined weights and scaled to look like OBP) is a fairly mediocre .339 with, again, just four years markedly above average.
However, only if you stop there does Beltre look like a pedestrian player. There are things we know about baseball that suggest we should not be stopping there, though. First, we know that a players' home ballpark affects his offensive production. The baseball analytics site StatCorner has Dodger Stadium as reducing a right hander's offense by 5%, and Safe Co Field doing so by 4%. FanGraphs provides a supliment to wOBA called wRC+, which includes a park adjustment and compares to league average. Average is 100, higher than that is above average. If you are familiar with OPS+, it's like that. Anyway, for his career, Beltre's wRC+ is 110, solidly above average. Just five times since his rookie year has Beltre been below average, with a couple of those being 97s. His great years, by the way, were 165 and 143 respectively. That is the kind of ceiling Beltre offers.
A second thing we know about baseball is that filling certain positions with offense is more difficult than others. A first baseman hitting merely above average is a problem, and for a shortstop, it is great. For a third baseman, it is just fine. Michael Young's career has been 108 in wRC+, with his seasons about in the range Beltre typically is. For his position, there is nothing wrong with Beltre's offense, typically, and it is, in fact, usually a slight plus or better. At face value, his numbers were inflated by Fenway Park last season, but he is coming to another big hitters' park in Arlington.
A third thing we know about baseball is defense, and this is where Beltre's value really comes through. He has the reputation, and you certainly probably remember things he did when the Rangers played the Mariners, showing off seemingly unlimited range and an arm that never failed. And as Sullivan suggests, it is hard to imagine a third baseman being any better at fielding bunts.
Measuring defense is a tricky business, but people certainly make an attempt to do so. Two prominent measures are Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, both available at FanGraphs. They take every play a fielder could potentially make, compare it to similar plays made or not made by other fielders, and come up with how many plays above or below average the player in question made on the season. Then, they convert that in to run values. For Beltre, the results are perhaps even more glowing than his reputation. For his career, UZR has Beltre as saving 15 runs above average for every 150 games he plays. DRS, meanwhile, has him at 12 runs saved for every 150 games. In both, 2005 and 2007 are the only seasons where he failed to save runs in the double digits, estimated to be worth approximately at least a win over an average fielder in the standings.
And while fielding is something that certainly does drop with age in most cases, Beltre is not showing, on paper, much indication of slowing down. In UZR over the past three seasons, he's ranged from 11.0 runs saved to 14.7, saving an estimated 11.8 last year. Even more impressively, in DRS he's ranged from 10 runs saved (last year) to 24 runs saved. Beltre is not just good, he is a serious difference maker, on par with what we expect Elvis Andrus to be. Putting those two next to eachother on the left side of the infield should make perhaps the most difficult tandem in the league to sneak ground balls past.
The defense is what is fully important about this deal, similar to when Andrus came up. One of the biggest differences from 2008 to 2009, leading to a dramatic increase in wins, was moving Michael Young off of shortstop and replacing him with Elvis Andrus. The immediate improvement in defense was a large contributor to the improvement of that team, and this has the potential to be the same sort of move. There were many who thought Young would manage to be a solid third baseman, but that was not to be. He never seemed to field bunts and ground balls that even average fielders, let alone Beltre, make seem routine, and his already known limited range was exasperated by a seeming lack of reaction time. His two seasons at third cost the team, in total, 31 runs more than an average fielder by DRS, and 13 runs by UZR. Meaning, this season, we could reasonably expect around a 25-30 run improvement in run prevention over what we have seen recently at third base, which equates to some three estimated wins of improvement in the standings just from the defense. This is not an inconsequential improvement.
FanGraphs, because they are a fantastic service, takes the elements above (park adjusted offense, defense, and position value) to estimate how many wins above a replacement level position player a guy is worth with his production. In the case of A. Beltre, he has average about 4.1 Wins Above Replacement over his career for every 150 games played, or roughly the level of an All-Star-caliber player. That is skewed some by his incredible 10.1 win 2004 and nifty 7.1 last year, but outside of those here's he's usually been solid. Only in 2001 did he fail to meet the two win baseline that is roughly considered to be an average player, and he's usually exceeded that by quite a bit. Four times outside of his great years he has managed to reach four wins above replacement -- falling just short his rookie year -- including twice as a Mariner. The "Beltre sucks outside of contract years" myth needs to be put to rest, and he's even been very good more often than not over recent history.
Beltre likely does not pose much of an offensive improvement over young, but with the defense that's not entirely important. Even if we just expect Beltre to keep roughly close to Young offensive, with the defensive improvement, we're probably talking about expecting an extra two or three wins of record just from third base. Of course, as we've seen from Beltre's career as recently as last season, the ceiling for offense is much higher than that.
What happens at DH is key to how you adjust your expectations for the season. If you were expecting Vlad to return and pretty much put up something akin to the 2.6 WAR season he put up last year, most of those PAs will now probably be filled by Michael Young. If you, somewhat conservatively, set Young's offensive value at average, the DH adjustment is, you're probably subtracting approximately a win and a half from his value, but you're also adding approximately half a win by taking him out of the field, at least. That's still a loss of about a win at DH to subract from from our rough estimate at third, making the net expectation, with all other things staying the same, about a win or two improved from what you expected from the Rangers before Beltre.
However, along from just acknowledging Beltre has a higher ceiling that that, expecting Vlad to be more like his whole season and less like his second half as he ages was probably a bit iffy. If you expected any less than Vlad to repeat 2010, you're probably looking at expecting a team in 2010 that's at least slightly improved from where Rangers were before adding Lee, and that was a team already running away with the division. But the reality is the Rangers weren't necessarily going to bring Vlad back, and needed to fill DH. Instead of chucking a replacement-level player there, they've put a franchise icon who has shown at least the ability to put up an average offensive season. From that standpoint -- Beltre at third over Young, and Young at DH over a replacement-level DH -- you are probably talking about adjusting your expectations for 2011 up three or four wins from what you expected prior to the Beltre signing. Considering FanGraphs valued a win off the free agent market as having been worth $4 million in 2010, that likely justifies spending the $14 million it appears the Rangers will be spending on Beltre in 2010, and that is before accounting for how inflated the market seems to be this offseason. Of course, Young is likely to play other positions, where his defense may cause more harm than just keeping him at DH would, but the difference is likely small, and more complicated than there is room for in this particular wall of text.
Cliff Lee's WAR in 2010, by the way, was 3.1 at FanGraphs, and he likely had a smaller part in the Rangers' record than that in reality due to poor luck. Beltre can, by just estimates based around average, be expected to likely make the 2011 Rangers as good as, if not better than, the 2010 squad without any improvement in other aspects of the team. From that point of view, it certainly makes it seem like a good call and something to be happy about.
What is concerning, of course, is that the deal is not just for 2010, but another four, and possibly five, seasons past that. Adrian Beltre is not about to be a temporary part of the Rangers the way guys like Vladimir Guerrero, Milton Bradley, and Cliff Lee have been. He is going to be a fixture on the roster for the entire length of some kids' stay in college. The question is whether or not the contract will be worth it at the end of his stay.
Frankly, we do not know. We will not know until the end. All we can do is estimate. Baseball-Reference has Beltre's most similar batter as Ron Santo, who suffered something of a precipitous late career decline. After that is Cal Ripken, Jr, who suffered the same. Fifth is Scott Rolen, who actually has held up pretty well, though. Santo's WAR (at Baseball-Reference this time, but same concept) was an average of just over five per 650 plate appearances through age 31, compared to Beltre's just-over-four. He maintained that one year after, fell for average, and was done. Ripken, meanwhile, managed to hold a tad less than his value through 31 for the following four years, then hit a huge drop off. Scott Rolen, an elite fielder like Beltre, has lost a bit since his age 31 season, but has maintained pretty close to his original level.
Beltre's contract looks like $80 million guaranteed over four years. At face value, the Rangers would need Beltre to keep his value approximately at career average to justify that price by the current market. If he ends up like Santo, this deal will be pretty awful. If he ends up like Ripken, it will be on the high side by the current market, but if the free agency market continues to inflate, it could seem reasonable, if not a deal. Similarly, if he ends up like Rolen, it will likely be just fine of a contract. Of course, if Beltre earns his contract through the first five years, the $16 million optional sixth year likely vests, making it more risky.
All-in-all, it is probably a toss-up that Beltre ends up earning it. My guess would be it is a little on the high side, but the Rangers are also in a position where they have money coming in with a new contract, a new ownership base, likely increased fan interest (and thus spending) following a World Series berth, and a strong roster they need to capitalize on. Overspending just a tad on a premium player makes sense in Texas's current situation. If the front office decided they could pounce on a chance to improve their team, expecting him to stay close to his career averages for most of the next five years and/or the market to inflate dramatically, it makes sense to me. It is a nerve-wracking contract, but bad deals should not be the end of the line, and it is not guaranteed to be a bad deal. More closely, it is a deal that makes sense for both sides. Beltre is not steal, and the Rangers are not swindling. A reasonable deal is probably going to be a little scary.
For the time being, however, the Rangers have an exciting and talented player who makes the team better and solidifies them as one of the strongest defensive infields in baseball most likely. Worry about how much the contract might suck when the contract ends up sucking. For now, be excited about how strong the 2011 defending American League champion roster looks.
Glossary: WAR, DRS, UZR, wOBA