INDIANAPOLIS – In some respects, it seems preposterous that the Red Sox stand on the verge of trading Mike Lowell and pursuing Adrian Beltre as his possible replacement at third base.
It would, after all, be easy to conclude that Beltre’s tenure in Seattle – where he just concluded a five-year, $64 million deal – was a bust. He signed his deal on the basis of an incredible offensive year in 2004, when he hit 48 homers with a line of .334/.388/.629/1.017 as a 25-year-old with the Dodgers.
Against those offensive numbers, his performance in Seattle seemed a colossal disappointment: a .266 average, .317 OBP, .442 slugging mark, .759 OPS and an average of 21 homers a year. The numbers were worse in 2009, when Beltre spent the season most of the year battling with bone spurs in his left shoulder that required surgery and clearly impaired him at the plate.
And yet, despite his poor offensive numbers, Beltre – on the advice of agent Scott Boras – felt confident turning down an arbitration offer that, if accepted, could have yielded a one-year deal for somewhere in the vicinity of his $12 million 2009 salary. That, of course, is because the third baseman felt virtually certain that he would get a better deal in free agency.
And, in this case, Boras was right. And the reason is somewhat fascinating: five years after Beltre won a huge contract based primarily on his offensive success, he is likely to receive another multi-year primarily because teams are willing to pay for an incredible, game-changing defensive player.
The Sox have long been enamored of the third baseman’s defense. When Beltre was last a free agent after the 2004 season, one Red Sox executive suggested that Boston try to sign him to play shortstop. (Such a deal might have prevented the revolving door signings that began with Edgar Renteria that offseason.) And it would be hard to say that such a proposal was far-fetched.
Statistically, John Dewan’s Plus/Minus system suggests that Beltre has made 17 more plays than the average third baseman over the past five years. Those who have watched him don’t doubt such measures.
“[Beltre is] clearly the best [third baseman] I’ve ever seen in person,” said Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon. “I think [Evan Longoria] is good, I used to think Scott Brosius was really good. … [Eric] Chavez was good, but Beltre was stupid good. I think Beltre is the best who I’ve ever seen with my two eyes – defender, not just third baseman, but defense.”
It is a sign of the times and the changing nature of establishing player values that Beltre might be able to earn a second big long-term deal for a trait that was only a peripheral concern when he signed his contract with Seattle.
There is little question that the industry as a whole now places greater financial value on defense than it did a few years ago. Hence last offseason’s signing of Mark Teixeira – a tremendous all-around player – to an eight-year, $180 million deal in an offseason when the defensively deficient Adam Dunn got just a two-year, $20 million deal.
“I do think that defense now is something that has been able to be quantified a little bit better than before statistically,” said Padres manager Bud Black. “I think a lot of teams are using all the resources all available to them to rank and evaluate players defensively.”
“[The way defense is valued] is changing. There’s no question about it,” agreed Maddon. “I just think, as the home runs decrease a little bit, I think you’re going to see the re-emphasis on pitching and defense. For me, defense is probably the most accurately predictable part of a player’s performance. … I think what teams are finding out is, obviously, if you want to make your pitchers better, play better defense. It’s a more controllable element.”
That said, players’ defensive declines typically start a few years before their declines as hitters, so Beltre may be a bit beyond that extraordinary defensive peak. Even so, he still earns raves for his glove.
One major-league statistical analyst described Beltre as a sort of Brooks Robinson clone: a right-handed player with incredible range and defensive abilities, power, limited patience and an ability to hit for a .265-.270 average.
During the first four years of his Mariners contract, Beltre hit .266/.319/.454/.773 while averaging 24 homers and 88 RBIs. Against that fairly consistent record in Seattle, the Sox – and most baseball clubs – view Beltre’s 2009 season (.265/.304/.379/.683 with 8 homers and 44 RBIs in 111 games) as an aberration, a result of his playing through an injured shoulder that ultimately required surgery.
Boras made the case that his client was hampered by his home ballpark of Safeco Field, which tends to be a brutal park for right-handed power hitters.
“We did a study of Beltre’s road numbers compared to a very good hitter like, say, Jason Bay,” said Boras. “Obviously Beltre had some nicks this year with his collarbone, but looking at his ‘06-’08 numbers on the road and compared them to Bay’s ‘07-’09 performance offensively on the road and we’ve come up with the fact that Adrian had more RBIs, he had a few less home runs, his batting average was 25 points higher and his OPS was about the same.
“And I’m not including anything about Beltre’s 48 home run season (with the Dodgers in 2004). Just to put it in perspective the type of offensive player Adrian Beltre is outside of Seattle. You can really see he compares favorably a very coveted, talented free agent player today. Then you add in the fact I don’t think anybody in baseball will not tell you that Adrian Beltre is far and above the best defensive third baseman.”
From 2006-08, Beltre hit .287/.338/.503/.840 on the road with 39 homers; at home, he hit .252/.311/.432/.743 with 37 homers. (Of course, that conveniently ignores the fact that Beltre was terrible on the road in 2005 (.248/.295/.440/.736) in 2005 and during his injury-prone 2009, but no matter.)
From 2007-09, Bay hit .262/.353/.495/.847 on the road with 48 homers. During the same three years, Matt Holliday had a line of .303/.385/.475/.860 as a visitor.
So, presuming that Beltre is able to come close to replicating his pre-2009 form at the plate, which multiple evaluators anticipate, the possibility exists that he could be an average to above-average hitter. That, in combination with his defense, would represent an extremely enticing package to the Red Sox should the Lowell deal go through.
How much is Beltre’s skill set worth? One baseball source indicated that Beltre was seeking a five-year, $50 million deal; the Boston Herald reported that the 30-year-old is seeking a five-year, $65 million deal.
A major-league executive scoffed at that number, suggesting that he would be surprised if Beltre – coming off of injury – could do better than three years at $12 million a year (close to the three-year, $37.5 million deal that Lowell will complete in 2010).
Nonetheless, it is clear that Beltre will receive a substantial deal, and the Sox seem almost certain to be at or near the front of the line to sign him. That is not to say that the team would be without fallback options. For instance, the Sox told Mark DeRosa earlier this offseason that they would be very interested in the possibility of signing him if they freed a spot by dealing Lowell.
Still, the team’s interest in Beltre is substantial. GM Theo Epstein, after all, suggested at the beginning of the offseason that the team could make its most significant improvement by attacking its area of greatest weakness in 2009 – that of team defense. The signing of shortstop Marco Scutaro represented a partial fulfillment of that goal, but switching from Lowell – whose recovery from hip surgery devastated his range – to Beltre would give the Sox a star defender at all four infield positions.
“I think that [the Scutaro signing] certainly improved our defense at the shortstop position over the totality of our performance last year at that position, so that’s a big help. That’s an important position,” said Epstein. “I think we could do more, certainly. Whether we’re able to or not remains to be seen. I think it will be hard to improve both on offense and with our defense but I’m not sure which direction it will go yet.”
An answer may be coming soon.