Let’s play a game of word association. Ready? Carlos Beltran.
If you’re like many Mets fans I know, the word that came to mind was “choke” or “underachiever” or “injured,” or maybe you conjured up the image of Beltran standing in the batters box watching strike three sail past to end the 2006 season.
Well, that’s a shame. Say what you want about the Mets’ offensive history, Carlos Beltran is one of the greatest position players the franchise has ever had.*
Beltran was never well received in New York, partly because the expectations were too high, which can happen when a $119 million contract is involved.** In his six seasons in Kansas City and Houston, Beltran proved to be a .280 hitter with power, speed, a gold glove, and a strong, accurate arm—a five-tool player, but not a .300 hitter.
Of course, Beltran’s underachieving debut season in New York didn’t help. Many fans turned on him in 2005, when he hit just .266 with 16 home runs and 17 stolen bases, about half of what fans expected. They booed him during the second half of that season and Beltran never won them over.
|A smooth swing from the left and right side. (Credit: Keith Allison)|
Beltran does most everything on a baseball field effortlessly.*** He doesn’t run after fly balls so much as he glides across the outfield. I wrote about watching Jose Reyes run the bases, but Beltran is one of the best baserunners in the game. His long strides can make it seem like he’s not hustling, but he takes the extra base whenever he can and steals bases at a major league-record 88 percent success rate.
And that ties in to my only criticism of Beltran, who will be a free agent after this season. Could he have sacrificed a few of those percentage points in order to be a 40-steal a year player? Could he have played through some of his nicks and bruises that cost him a total of 179 games the previous two seasons?
I’m sure he played through discomfort we were never aware of, but he was certainly cautious about his body. He didn’t seem to realize—at least not as much as some other stars—that the team was better off with Beltran at 80 percent than a replacement at 100 percent. If he wasn’t feeling really good he wouldn’t play. If he wasn’t feeling perfect he wouldn’t push it on the basepaths.
Even so, Mets fans will soon learn it is not easy to find a five-tool center fielder, so when Beltran is playing for another team next season (or later this summer) I have a feeling it will be a classic case of not knowing what you had until it’s gone.
*Even if he gets traded before the deadline, Beltran will likely finish in the Mets all-time ranks as follows: sixth in RBI, fifth in home runs, fifth in slugging percentage, and third in wins above replacement. I mentioned Beltran as a potential Hall of Famer to a friend the other day and he laughed. If he stopped playing tomorrow, he wouldn’t be considered, but if he were to sustain his current level of play—he’s leading the league in extra-base hits—for the next few years he would be a strong candidate. Granted, that’s unlikely, but Baseball Reference claims that two of the hitters most similar to Beltran through age 33 are Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield, both in the Hall.
**I’m still not willing to say it was a bad contract. It took Beltran a year to get adjusted to playing in a big city and a different league. But from 2006-2008, when he made $13.5, $13.5, and $18.6 million a season, he was definitely worth the money. Injuries made the back-end of the deal (where he made about $19 million per season) ugly, but that’s how it always seems to go with these lucrative long-term contracts (at least with the Mets). You think Albert Pujols is going to be worth $25-30 million at the tail end of his next contract, when he’s nearly 40 years old?
***This can’t be quantified, but Beltran is the most natural ballplayer the Mets have had in a long time. No matter what he is doing, he just looks the part. If you’re thinking David Wright, you need to watch him throw from third to first. Style points don’t count for anything, but Beltran does look like the perfect ballplayer.
****This doesn’t correspond with any point I made previously, but I think Beltran should be commended for the way he handled his move to right field. Look at Jorge Posada. His skills—both offensively and defensively—are diminishing, but he preferred to take himself out of the lineup (or, according to recent reports, quit the team) before accepting a demotion to the ninth spot in the lineup. As far as we know, Derek Jeter hasn’t been asked to switch positions or move down in the lineup, but it will be interesting to see his reaction when it does come to that. Beltran, meanwhile, recognized his skills were fading and shifted to right to make room for a younger, more athletic protégé. Anyone who felt Beltran was selfish had to rethink that stance after Spring Training this year.