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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Face of Deja Vu

ESPN, among others, is reporting that the Rangers are close to signing a $90 Million deal with third baseman, Adrian Beltre.  On one level, this makes plenty of sense.  Beltre was an MVP candidate for the Red Sox last season.  He is a substantial defensive upgrade over Michael Young and an offensive upgrade over Vladimir Guerrero, and he's younger than either of them.  Nevertheless, I can't help feeling like we've been here before, and the ensuing results were mighty unkind.

In the winter of 2005, Beltre was a 25-year-old coming off a season in which he finished second in the MVP balloting (behind Barry Bonds), led the league in homers (48), and led all of baseball in Ultimate Zone Rating (24.8).  It was the kind of season the Dodgers had been anticipating since they promoted him to the majors at the tender age of 19.  Unfortunately, six years later, it remains the zenith of his career.

In an understandably intense bidding war, the Dodgers (and the rest of the league) lost out to the Seattle Mariners, who signed the young Beltre to a five-year, $61 Million contract, at that time the largest annual salary ever awarded to a third baseman.  To put it mildly, things did not work out.  It took Beltre four full seasons to achieve as many Wins Above Replacement as he had in 2004 alone (10.1).  He never got within 20 HR of his '04 totals or within 200 points of his '04 OPS.  During his tenure in Seattle, from '05 to '09, he ranked just 7th among major-league third baseman in WAR (13.8), his performance bettered or equaled by much cheaper players like Brandon Inge (14.4), Troy Glaus (13.3), and Mike Lowell (13.3). Moreover, most of Beltre's value came from his continually superior defense and he did little to aid the Mariners in the way they had expected, as an anchor in their otherwise power-starved lineup.  Rumors swirled around him.  He was, of course, suspected of using PEDs, based solely on the extent to which his '04 season now seemed like a massive outlier.  He was accused of being surly, of being out of shape, of playing disinterestedly following his big payday.

The extent to which Beltre disappointed everybody's expectations and was almost universally maligned allowed Theo Epstein to swoop in last offseason and make one of the finest value signing of his impressive career.  Though Beltre was nothing like the player he had been in '04, he still had a more than serviceable track record and Epstein's one-year, $10 Million offer represented an absolute high-jacking.  This would have been the case even if Beltre had merely maintained the numbers he averaged during his five years in Seattle.  Instead, freed from the pressure of being a franchise lynchpin and playing in the unfriendly confines of Safeco Field, Beltre turned in his best performance since ' a long shot.  He finished second in the AL in WAR (7.1), led the Red Sox in nearly every offensive category, and was, as usual, among the best defenders at his position.

Texas is, clearly, banking on the fact that the 2004 and 2010 version of Adrian Beltre are the real ones, that threaded into their already potent lineup, playing in their power-friendly ballpark, and inspired by the potential to contend for several years to come, Beltre will continue to show both superior talent and motivation.  This is, of course, a dangerous assumption.  This will represent the second time Beltre has turned one really good season into half a decade or more of really big paychecks.  By the time this contract is finished, Beltre will have been paid more over the course of his career than substantially superior players (at least in terms of average annual production to this point) like Scott Rolen, Chipper Jones, and Aramis Ramirez.  Even David Wright, whose WAR since 2005 is 50% higher than Beltre's (29.7 v. 19.9) may have a hard time equally Beltre's total earning power over the course of his career.

Although I want Jon Daniels instincts to be correct, and I can certainly imagine a scenario in which Beltre earns every cent of this contract, I can't help worrying that the Rangers panicked a bit when they failed to land Cliff Lee and threw more money at a Scott Boras client than was truly necessary (doesn't this happen every year).  Beltre will be 32-years-old when the '11 season begins.  Even if his 2010 production was not an anomaly, can we expect him to produce at that level for more than two or three years to come?  The incredible quickness and dexterity which is the key to his success as both a hitter and fielder will begin to fade by the time he reaches his mid-thirties.  Chipper Jones numbers fell off the table after he turned 36.  Rolen, Glaus, Derrek Lee, and Ron Santo (all players with notable similarities to Beltre) began to rapidly decline well before that.  Beltre's contract will pay him through at least his 37th birthday.

Jon Daniel one ace in the hole, however, is that, unlike all the players mentioned above, Beltre has almost zero injury history.  He's made 600+ plate appearances in eight of the last nine seasons.  Last year, he came out of a pair of rather gruesome collisions completely unfazed (the same could not be said of Jacoby Ellsbury, unfortunately).  If Beltre stays on the field, keeps most of his defensive chops, and is able to produce at least on the level he did in Seattle through the next four or five seasons, the Rangers won't live to regret this signing all that much.  If...

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