Friday was just about as topsy-turvy a day as the Yankees have ever had in their offseason history. In the morning, they lost their MVP-caliber homegrown talent in Robinson Cano to a monster 10-year contract with the Mariners, and as fans pondered how the Yankees might seek to replace his production in the lineup, the Yankees worked out a three-year deal with the long-coveted Carlos Beltran. While it would have been nice to see the Yankees as vigorous in their pursuit of Beltran when he was a free agent in 2004 and 2011, he is now just about officially a Yankee.
Understandably, committing to a three-year deal with a guy who turns 37 in April has already taken some criticism. Once upon a time, Beltran was one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, but like any aging player, his defense has declined with age to the point where he was a negative dWAR player in St. Louis. Although Beltran has a career walk rate of 10.4%, it dipped to 6.3% last year due to a slightly more aggressive hitting approach. The Yankees are choosing to move forward in 2013 with a guy who was once Rookie of the Year... in 1999. Beltran is no spring chicken, so was it really the best move to bring him into the fold?
Like with the Jacoby Ellsbury signing, there are a few main topics of contention with the opponents to the Beltran signing:
- Why give Beltran a third year when they were so previously opposed to it?
- Why would they bring in another outfielder when they seemed to be already set with Gardner/Ellsbury/Soriano?
- Why pick Beltran over the younger Shin-Soo Choo, Curtis Granderson, and Nelson Cruz?
The questions about the third year are the most valid of all. The age 39 edition of Beltran is not likely to be very pretty. Baseball-Reference lists three former perennial All-Star outfielders as the good comparisons to Beltran: Bernie Williams, Larry Walker, and Jim Edmonds. Although he posted a 130 OPS+ in his final season, Walker only played 100 games and retired before his age 39 season. Bernie played his last ball at age 37, when he was slightly below a league average hitter. Edmonds had a 112 OPS+ in 111 games at age 38, but decided to take a year off at age 39, though he did come back for a last hurrah with a 125 OPS+ season in 86 games at age 40. While these are just three cherry-picked examples, they are all cautionary tales. (Fortunately, Beltran has arguably had a superior career than all three of them, and demonstrated why with a better and healthier age 36 season than them all.)
The third year is annoying, but it was apparently necessary to get the deal done to bring Beltran into the fold. He reportedly had a three-year, $48 million offer in hand from the Diamondbacks, and he gave the Yankees a slight discount, just as he did when the Mets gave him that six-year contract in the 2004-05 offseason. This time, the Yankees took him up on the discount and signed him. I don't think anyone is expecting the third year of this deal to be very good, but such is the competitive nature of free agency--teams sometimes have to bid a little bit more than they are comfortable offering to secure a player's services.
Beltran obviously figures to give the Yankees the most value during the first two years of the contract. Though entering his thirties, he has had just one season in the past eight years with an OPS+ under 125. He'll be switch-hitting in a park that's relatively friendly to righties, and famously excellent to lefties. It would not be a reach to hope that Beltran continues this trend in 2014 and perhaps 2015 as well. He will likely have to play plenty of subpar right field this year, but in 2015, Alfonso Soriano's contract will end, opening the door for Beltran to potentially take even more DH time, which he could likely do the same in the ominous year three, 2016. It could end up being a split with Alex Rodriguez, but as of now, no one has any idea what the hell A-Rod's future holds. With some luck, one of the Yankees' blue-chip minor league outfielders could be poised to take over by then, be it Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott, or Mason Williams (on a related note, they all really need to have much better years in 2014 than they did in 2013 to prove that they should be considered a legitimate future possibilities). The bottom line is that while it was not ideal to give Beltran a third year, they had to go three to ensure his bat would help their 2014-15 lineup, as originally planned with the two-year offer. The third year could be rough, but this team has the financial resources to work around a declining Beltran, if necessary. That advantage helps outweigh the risks involved in guaranteeing a third year to Beltran.
As previously mentioned, the Yankees seemed to be set with their outfield plans after signing Ellsbury. Brett Gardner would man left field, Alfonso Soriano would take right, and the DH spot would be open for the some kind of rotation with Soriano, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and other older players. Since we all thought that Cano would eventually be signed, the batting order would at least be some iteration of Ellsbury/Jeter/Cano/Tex/Soriano/A-Rod/McCann/Gardner/Ichiro. That's a strong middle of the order, but once Cano signed his megabucks deal with Seattle, it severely crippled that plan. It was a huge step down from the likes of Cano/Tex/Soriano to Tex/Soriano/A-Rod, Tex/Soriano/McCann, or whoever the Yankees decided to use in the heart of the lineup from their roster. Despite some 2012 struggles against lefties, Cano has been mostly immune to platoon splits throughout his career. The Yankees had a big hole in their lineup, especially against lefthanded pitching; the only players who could counter this threat with a righty swing were Soriano, Tex, Jeter, and A-Rod (the latter two are of course older than Beltran and even bigger question marks for 2014).
The Yankees had to make a move to improve their lineup. At that point, the only free agent bats who could really make a noticeable difference were outfielders and first basemen. With Tex in tow, the Yankees weren't about to add a Kendrys Morales or a Mike Napoli (who wanted to go back to Boston anyway), so the only option became an outfielder. That decision would force a quandary on the Yankees regarding their current outfield setup, but to give the offense a boost, the Yankees had little other choice. The absence of Cano left a void in the lineup. The Yankees filled it with one of the best hitters on the market. Although signing Beltran created a logjam in the outfield, the offense as it was after the Cano signing would likely have had trouble staying competitive. The Yankees will have to work on figuring that out (and possibilities of course exist for keeping the inexpensive Gardner while using some kind of DH rotation with Soriano, Beltran, Jeter, and perhaps A-Rod), but the alternative of going forward with that offense without Cano or Beltran was undesirable.
The team ultimately decided to sign the soon-to-be-37-year-old Beltran for three years over the soon-to-be-34-year-old Granderson for four years, the 31-year-old Choo for likely six years, and the 33-year-old Cruz for possibly four years. The problem with Choo and Granderson is that neither would really help the Yankees' lineup against lefthanded pitching all that much. Granderson's work with Kevin Long in 2010 made him better against lefties, and while that showed in 2011, he took a step back in 2012. He did rebound to a 119 wRC+ against lefties in 2013, that was only in 73 plate appearances. As he gets older, his numbers against same-handed pitching are not likely to age well. Meanwhile, Choo's problems with lefthanded pitching are well-documented. He had a paltry 81 wRC+ and .265 slugging percentage against them in 2013; even if he bounces back to his career norm of a 92 wRC+ against lefties, it's an unimpressive figure.
The righthanded Cruz could have been an answer, but he is seeking a four-year deal worth around $75 million, a good $30 million and an extra year more than what Beltran ultimately received. He also hasn't had a two-win season by fWAR measures since 2010 (I'm sure the Biogenesis cloud doesn't help, either). Beltran is no gem on defense anymore, but none of Choo, Granderson, or Cruz are even average defenders anymore, either. Adding any of these outfielders was going to hurt the defense. Keep in mind that while Soriano has been a better defender than all four the past few years, that was in left field. While lower on the defensive spectrum than left field, Soriano has never played an inning of right field in his career. There would be a risk with him out there as well, and though Ichiro can still play solid defense, he is an abysmal singles hitter at age 40. The Yankees were going to enter the 2014 season with a risk on defense in right field; Beltran was just one of many. He's likely to stay healthy, too; he's made just one DL stint in the past three years since undergoing knee surgery in 2010. These days, rest every now and then has restricted him to about 146 games a year since 2011, but that's not really a sign that his knee is about to explode or anything. Hell, he's only made six DL stints in his career.
Beltran is essentially equal on defense to the other outfield alternatives. As a switch-hitter, he is mostly unaffected by platoon splits. Perhaps most importantly to the Yankees, he only asked for three years. Now, these were his age 37-39 years, but they were just three years regardless. Granderson's years would have been 34-37, Choo's new contract will likely ask for at least years 31-36, and Cruz's will likely ask for years 33-36. The problem is that although they would be younger, all of those other players carry about as many question marks as Beltran. I think Choo is more likely to post a better wRC+ than Beltran in 2014, but it would not surprise me to see Beltran, Granderson, and Cruz end up around the same wRC+. The FanGraphs Steamer predictions actually have Beltran finishing a few points higher than Granderson and Cruz. So if systems project roughly similar performances to Beltran in 2014, why give more years to Granderson and Cruz? Choo might be better overall at the plate, but he wouldn't help the Yankees' problems against lefties at all and they would have to gamble on another long contract like they did with Ellsbury. Given these caveats, it's understandable why the Yankees chose Beltran.
Guaranteeing Beltran for three years is certainly a risk. However, his addition to the lineup should be a boon to the 2014 and 2015 Yankees' offense. That's the bottom line, and that's why I've gotten over my uneasy feelings about the addition of a third year.
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