After being eased back into baseball activities this spring, Carlos Beltran made his first appearance in the 2015 Grapefruit League yesterday against the Pirates, going 0 for 2 with a walk and 2 strikeouts. More importantly, he navigated six innings in right field safely.
Beltran might already be a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, but you would not have known it from his 2014 season; .233/.301/.402 triple slash and 15 home runs in 109 games. He was below average as an offensive player with 95 wRC+ and certainly he was no defensive asset even when his injured elbow allowed him to play right field.
Hear him speak about the way he felt last year though, and it becomes a surprise that he even played 109 games.
"I got caught up in thinking too much instead of playing the game...I was trying to find a way to still play and not feel pain," he said. "Every day was pain, pain."
It wasn't just a problem during fielding, resolvable by playing him at designated hitter. Beltran talked about feeling pain on his elbow on every swing, every chase, every whiff on a pitch. Brian Cashman conceded during winter meetings that the team and player may have been better off by just having Beltran undergo elbow surgery in May when the problem was identified, as opposed to trying to have him play through the pain.
Of course, these decisions are often exceedingly simple with hindsight. Beltran wanted to play last season, and considering where the team was offensively, even as the pitching staff kept the team within sight of the wildcard spots, it's not shocking that Joe Girardi was tempted to keep running him out there.
Carlos Beltran underwent the necessary surgery in the offseason, and he's extremely positive about where he is now, physically.
"I was expecting the next day to wake up a little sore, and I woke up feeling fine," he said. "So now it’s in the past."
Admittedly, if hindsight involves 20/20 optics, foresight in spring training does often seem to flow through rose-coloured glasses. However, Beltran sounding optimistic and downplaying the pain he feels at this point is certainly better than the alternative. He did concede that he doesn't expect to ever be pain-free again, and that he hasn't been in the last seven or eight years. Not shocking, considering he's been in his 30's during that entire stretch, and it does seem unlikely to expect Beltran to remain fully healthy throughout the grind of a 162-game season, now as a 38-year old. Especially if the Yankees choose to try and play him in right field every day to accommodate Alex Rodriguez as the regular designated hitter.
Of course, at this point in spring, coming off successful offseason post-surgery rehab, Beltran is looking to play right field every day. The same way Alex Rodriguez probably still thinks he can play third base every day, it would have been a surprise to hear anything else from a self confessed "gamer."
"To me, honestly speaking, physically speaking, outfield is my position," he said. "Unless Joe feels, or the organization feels something different."
"I just want to be productive," he said. "I want to put myself in a position where I can impact the team in a positive way, offensively or defensively."
Carlos Beltran has had a great career, and I still do wish the Yankees went after him a decade ago when he was one of the best center fielders in baseball both offensively and defensively. That Beltran is not about to present himself in 2015, and perhaps even the 131 wRC+ hitting specialist playing right field for the Cardinals in 2013 is too much to hope for, but any production the Yankees can get from him in 2015 is a positive.
Beltran is saying all the right things, at this point, and indeed should he be able to stay healthy for an extended stretch of the season and provide a rebound with the bat, he could certainly be a key contributor to a Yankee team that once again may well need to overachieve just to insert themselves into wild card contention.
Should Beltran miss any time, Garrett Jones should serve as a credible understudy, but Jones is also the first line of defense behind Rodriguez at DH and Mark Teixeira at first base. As such, it will be important for Girardi to be conscious of the need to get Beltran regular rest this season. The fact that he was the last of the position players to start in spring might well be a positive sign that Girardi will be starting to monitor Beltran's workload before the grind even begins. It may not keep him healthy all year but hopefully it will give Beltran, and the Yankees, a fighting chance.