The Trout vs. Cabrera debate dominated discussion of the American League MVP race. But for the Red Sox, the most significant aspect of the voting process that has turned into something of an ideological war resided just below that all-encompassing surface.
The third-place finisher in the AL MVP chase was none other than Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre. The 33-year-old was a tremendous multi-dimensional force for the Rangers in 2012, playing 156 games and hitting .321 with a .359 OBP, .561 slugging mark, .921 OPS, 36 homers and 102 RBI while playing his customarily outrageous third base defense, winning his fourth career Gold Glove.The performance was striking not just for its excellence but also for the similarity it possessed to the year Beltre spent with the Red Sox in 2010. Compare:
2010: 154 G, .321 Avg, .365 OBP, .553 Slg, .919 OPS, 28 HR, 102 RBI
2012: 156 G, .321 Avg, .359 OBP, .561 Slg, .921 OPS, 36 HR, 102 RBI
Beltre, of course, represented a tremendous bargain-signing by the Red Sox for the 2010 season. The team added him on a one-year, $9 million deal (he claimed an additional $1 million in playing time incentives), enjoyed the services of a player who was one of the best in the American League and then collected a pair of draft picks when he left to sign a five-year, $80 million (with a sixth year at $16 million that can be voided if Beltre fails to reach certain plate appearance totals) after that year.
At the time, the logic seemed difficult to fault. Kevin Youkilis was coming off a three-year stretch from 2008-10 in which he had the highest OPS (.964) of any player in the American League. He was under team control for 2011 and 2012 at what seemed like bargain salaries ($12.25 million for each year, plus a $13 million option for 2013 or a $1 million buyout) given his production.
The Sox traded for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who seemed ready to spend years as one of the pre-eminent sluggers in the majors, thus meaning that Youkilis was going to shift from first to third.
The Sox were committing to Gonzalez for his age 29-36 seasons, capturing most of his prime. The Rangers seemed like they'd just get the end of Beltre's prime, followed by some years of decline, as they were signing the third baseman to a deal that covered his age 32-36 seasons.
At the time, both Youkilis and Gonzalez had more consistent track records of elite production than did Beltre. Youkilis' deal was one that featured relatively little risk, and that was -- at the time -- considerably below market value. Beltre, meanwhile, seemed like he was at the point in his career where age might diminish his production, but he was going to be paid like someone in his prime.
However, the Rangers saw a huge opportunity in Beltre.
"There was a little trepidation up front. Ideally, we'd have liked to have done a four-year deal. But when it came to going to five years needed to get the player, there really wasn't much hesitation," explained Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine during the season. "You would like it to be for less dollars and fewer years, but he was such a primary target for us that offseason that we were prepared to do what it took to get him.
"It's an inexact science, obviously, but looking at our scouting reports and challenging our scouts to really evaluate the player himself and the person behind the player, we felt he was going to age well. He takes tremendous care of himself. He plays the game the right way. And you basically have to shoot the man to get him off the field.
"So a lot of those factors led to, worst-case scenario, the last year of that contract he's playing first base, we were willing to stomach that for the tremendous defense we knew he'd play at third for the first four-ish seasons. As it stands now," he mused, "it looks like he can play into his mid-40s and not have an issue."
Beltre's first two years with the Rangers suggest as much. Though hamstring injuries limited him to 124 games in 2011 (when he performed at an All-Star level when healthy, hitting .296/.331/.561/.892 with 31 homers), he's been one of the most impactful players in the American League in his two years in Texas, something recognized with two straight All-Star appearances, two straight Gold Gloves and this year's third-place finish in MVP voting.
"I guess I'm like a wine. I'm getting better with age," Beltre said with a smile during the year. "The fact that I'm playing with a good team, the atmosphere is different, the team I'm playing with is in first place, that adds a little bit more to it, gives a little kick."
Would the Sox have been better off had they retained Beltre after the 2010 season? In retrospect, it's hard to suggest otherwise, though it's somewhat complicated to assess precisely what keeping Beltre would have meant.
The Sox weren't looking to part with Youkilis after the 2010 season, so they likely would have kept Beltre and Youkilis on the two corners instead of trading for Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a more valuable player in 2011 than Beltre, in part because he played more games while ranking among the top hitters in the league.
Still, in retrospect, the team moved on from a player who had demonstrated his fit and enthusiasm for Boston (Beltre) in favor of one whose fit for the region came under scrutiny by the end of his first year with the Red Sox (Gonzalez) and who ultimately was purged in a deal with the Dodgers in his second year. However, no one forecast such an outcome at the time that the Sox made the decision to go after Gonzalez and move on from Beltre.
Could the team have traded away Youkilis after 2010, traded for Gonzalez and re-signed Beltre? Maybe -- and, in retrospect, doing so might have spared the team from the ill-fated signing of Carl Crawford, while also helping to offset the prospect hit of the Gonzalez deal through whatever the team might have gotten for Youkilis.
Still, at the time, the idea of trading Youkilis at a time when he was affordable, low-risk (in terms of years and dollars) and one of the top producers in the game (albeit a player whose 2010 season ended with a fluke hand injury) seemed hard to fathom. Moreover, the appeal of collecting a pair of draft picks for Beltre as an offset for Gonzalez' departure was considerable. (The Sox turned the loss of Beltre into first-rounder Blake Swihart and supplemental first-rounder Jackie Bradley Jr.)
It's also worth noting that the Sox got an All-Star season from Youkilis at third base in 2011 before injuries led to a precipitous drop in his productivity in the second half of that year. And when Youkilis struggled out of the gate in 2012, the team had Will Middlebrooks ready to step in and assert himself as the team's third baseman for years to come (until a broken hand ended his year in August). So, the Red Sox' production at third base has been anything but the team's most glaring deficiency.
Even so, it's difficult not to take stock of the fact that, in a year when Beltre was recognized as one of the best players in baseball, the Sox parted ways in the middle of the season with both Youkilis and Gonzalez. Beltre's 210 points in MVP voting were exactly 210 more than any member of the Red Sox received.
Ultimately, the decision to let Beltre leave wasn't necessarily a mistake by the Sox. But his egress certainly has come to represent a loss for Boston and a considerable gain for the Rangers.