On several occasions during Carlos Beltran’s seven-year tenure with the Mets, I have heard colorful (and sometimes off-color) analyst Keith Hernandez admire Beltran’s gait.
It is an odd thing to admire of a ballplayer. Typically, it’s his raw power or hose-like throwing arm or sharp eye or blazing speed. But, Hernandez, God love him, is a noted admirer of Beltran’s gait, his running stride. It’s one of the qualities I like about Hernandez as an analyst: For all his sometimes off-putting antics, he’s also honest, secure in his unorthodoxy, and he appreciates many of the game’s nuances.
But it spoke to something greater about Beltran and the way he is perceived among Mets fans and pundits, because if you liked Beltran — if you chose to focus on his 20 WAR from 2006-08, chiefly — you were probably admiring his gait right along with Hernandez.
If you didn’t like Beltran, you probably weren’t interested in admiring his gait. You probably thought Beltran was overpaid, passionless, soft, injury-prone, un-clutch, timid when the team needed leaders, unwilling to play a shallower center field, and, in contrast to Hernandez’s point, maybe even a loafer.
Indeed, for a man who was at times an immensely productive player and a non-entity off the field, Beltran has been a tellingly polarizing figure. It is entirely a matter of perception, really, as to which side of the argument you fall on.
And the objective information is becoming such that it is difficult to make an overwhelmingly compelling argument either way.
As recently as mid-2009, there wasn’t much of an argument, really. Sure, there was Beltran’s disappointing first season in New York, and he had to be forced to take a curtain call early in 2006, and he struck out (looking) to end the ’06 NLCS. But these were all fluffy criticisms, grist for the sabermetric mill. The guy was a flat-out stud. Over the first four years of his deal, he was paid $52.5MM. According to Fangraphs, he was worth roughly $87MM in that period.
Absolving Beltran of blame for the Mets’ travails rightfully became something of a cause celebre among progressive types, and it still is.
But, of course, the combined forces of age and injury quickly eroded Beltran’s stock from that of a stalwart to that of a liability. Although he was on pace for another 6-WAR season in 2009, he became injured, which carried into 2010. He was worth only 4 WAR in 144 games in those two seasons, and with his contract back-heavy, as most are, he was suddenly in an unseemly phase of his long-term deal, the one in which the player’s compensation exceeds his production.
And now, as he embarks on what will almost assuredly be his last season with the Mets, Beltran is perhaps staring at another injury-marred campaign, which would be his fourth in seven with the Amazin’s. He has already deemed himself unfit to play center field, which can’t bode especially well for the condition of his surgically repaired knees, not to mention that the value derived from his defensive contributions will likely be negligible if not negative.
We can’t assume anything, of course, about how Beltran will fare in 2011, but expectations are tempered. Another disappointing season — one in which Beltran’s hefty salary continues to loom over the cash-strapped Mets — will do little in the way of establishing a common interpretive ground between the divided factions.
Looking at compensation relative to value, Beltran is pretty close to having earned every dollar the Mets have paid him. He has been paid approximately $100MM of his $119MM deal so far, with the Mets owing him $18.5MM this season, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. He has been worth approximately $105MM to date, meaning he’ll need a “value” of about $14MM in 2011 for the contract to be an even wash. Glancing back at prior years, I noticed that he was worth exactly that amount in 2009, when he posted a 3.1 WAR. So, assuming WAR can be approximated in such a way, Beltran will need to be worth about 3 WAR in 2011 to have met the dollar value of his contract. He was worth 3.1 WAR in 2009 when he played in only 81 games, mind you, so it is reasonable to believe he can achieve that in 2011 if he plays in more games.
Even still, it’s pretty close. So, it’s hard to argue that Beltran hasn’t earned the big contract the Mets committed to him prior to the 2005 campaign. He is already among the top five or six position players in Mets history, which speaks to the brilliance of his performance from 2006-08 (when he was the best center fielder in baseball) as well as the Mets’ spotty history with developing and retaining position players. To boot, he’s the best center fielder in club history by a healthy margin.
Beltran’s production was incredibly top-heavy throughout his first six years in New York, his all-or-nothing wares unsurprisingly mirroring those of the Mets. That he was the best all-around player on three teams that were good but ultimately disappointing undoubtedly says less about Beltran, in any context, and more about how the Mets were flimsily constructed.
Typically, the nature of long-term contracts is such that the team over-commits in both years and dollars for the prospect of riding the elite player, in his prime, to something great. Beltran was, in fact, elite in three of his first four years in New York, but the Mets did not achieve something great. And just the way Mets fans rue that the great teams of the mid-1980s did not establish themselves as a dynasty with more than one World Series, I sense they feel similarly about the mid-aughts Amazin’s, to whom Beltran is inextricably bound.
It’s fitting, then, that Beltran will have been worth little more or less than the big money the Mets committed to him. The rest is a matter of perception, like whether you admire his gait.