Continuing with the short profiles on upcoming free agents, this one will be shorter than most others. Thanks to some in depth conversations we had on Beltre earlier this year, I thought I already wrote him up, but realized that I have not. We have two pretty good threads on him here and here, if you’re looking for more talk about Beltre. On to the mini-mini-article.
How much has Adrian Beltre improved his stock in the past year? Consider this quote from an August 4th, 2003 article by Peter Gammons: Will Adrian Beltre even get a big league, $500,000 contract next spring?
At that point, Beltre was in the middle of a .240/.290/.424 season and posting his third consecutive disappointing season. At the age of 24, he didn’t appear to be getting any better. Heading into this season, PECOTA projected him to hit .257/.311/.442, a modest increase but still an average player. Instead, he hit .334/.388/.629 and was one of the best players in baseball. The improvement was of historic proportions; it was just a huge leap over his last three years, which causes many to feel that it was an outlier and he’ll return to mediocrity after signing an enormous contract this fall.
I don’t happen to be in that category. You’ll hear quite often that 2004 was Beltre’s “first good year”, but that’s not really true. In 1999, at the age of 20, Beltre hit .275/.352/.428, drew 61 walks, and tossed in 18 stolen bases for good measure. The next year, still just 21, he hit .290/.360/.475, and all the markers pointed towards superstardom. He dominated the minor leagues, coming up through the system as a teenager and being annointed as the top prospect in baseball. He was already a terrific performer by age 21, and the performance matched the hype. There was little reason to think Beltre wouldn’t become one of the premier talents in major league baseball.
Then, in 2001, he had an emergency apendectomy in the Dominican Republic which went very wrong. He lost huge amounts of weight and strength and had to have several corrective medical procedures aimed at getting him healthy. It didn’t work, and he proceeded to struggle through the season. 2002 and 2003 brought the same mediocrity, but 2004 saw the return of Beltre’s talents. He has a history of being a terrific talent, and 2004 was not the first time he had flashed the potential to be a superstar.
So how good was Beltre last year? Once you factor in his terrific defense at third base, he was probably the second best player in the game. VORP ranks him 5th offensively, but Helton, Pujols, and Guerrero offer significantly less with the glove. But read those namees again; rather than splitting hairs, just look at the company he’s in. Bonds. Pujols. Guerrero. Adrian Beltre is pretty freaking good. At his prime level, he’s not a second tier star; he’s an MVP candidate.
How good should we expect Beltre to be in the future? That’s a bit trickier. It’s hard to believe that his .334 average was for real, after posting BA’s in the .260 range for most of his career. While his increased power certainly helped, he also saw a dramatic increase in the amount of singles as a percentage of non-HR balls in play (22 % in 2004, 15 % career). Singles are notoriously inconsistent, so for the sake of argument, let’s assume he reverts back to his career norm. That would cost him 32 singles, and his BA would plummet from .334 to .281, which would still be good enough to make an all-star player. However, I don’t believe we can realistcally assume that all the improvement was noise; he was geniunely hitting the crap out of the ball last year, and hard hit balls are obviously more likely to get through than dribblers up the line. At worst, I think we can take away about 15 or 20 singles, which would still leave him as a .300 hitter.
So, we have a player who has shown the ability to be an upper level talent and will likely continue to be, is a free agent at the age of 25, and plays a position of great need for the Mariners. He’s tremendous offensively and defensively. A 7 year contract doesn’t commit you into his decline phase. And because of his mediocre seasons from 2001-2003, he’s going to come at a bit of a discount, compared to the other upper echelon free agents.
He’s just about the perfect free agent for this team. Sign him. Sign him now.