After not being able to re-sign the most important member of the franchise since Stan “The Man” Musial, the St. Louis Cardinals got better at two positions when they signed Carlos Beltran on Thursday to a 2-year, $26 million contract with a full no-trade clause. Beltran is a fine piece to a puzzle that moves incumbent right fielder Lance Berkman to first base on a full-time basis and gives the Cardinals one of the best switch-hitters available in baseball today, albeit with papier-mâché knees and declining defense that limits him to an outfield corner.
This fall of the corner outfield domino can be mainly attributed to the chain of events that preceded the signing (hence, you know…the whole Domino Effect thingy). The Minnesota Twins decided to go with Josh Willingham in left field to fill one of their outfield holes, with his 3-year, $21 million contract being relatively reasonable considering he’s not exactly a high-caliber player (bat-only corner outfielders aren’t exactly a premium). However, it was Colorado’s response to that signing, quickly inking Michael Cuddyer to a 3-year, $30 million deal that all of a sudden had Scott Boras swooning. He was hoping for a big payday for Beltran, who had just finished off his long-term deal with the Mets and Giants, and because of Colorado closely coveting Cuddyer (heh…aliteration) Boras realized that with Albert Pujols heading for Los Angeles that the Cardinals had money to spend, and were willing to listen on a somewhat expensive contract. This lined up perfectly, considering it was obvious that both Willingham and Cuddyer were not nearly as good a player as Beltran. Take a look at the Wins Above Replacement for the three players from Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus over the last few seasons:
Fangraphs from 2007-2011
Beltran: 5.5, 7.6, 3.0, 0.8, 4.7 (Total: 19.6)
Cuddyer: 2.5, 0.0, 2.8, 0.8, 3.1 (Total: 9.2)
Willingham: 2.1, 3.0, 2.6, 3.0, 2.1 (Total: 12.8)
Baseball-Reference from 2007-2011
Beltran: 5.3, 6.8, 4.2, 1.9, 4.4 (Total: 22.6)
Cuddyer: 1.9, 0.5, 1.2, 1.0, 3.0 (Total: 7.6)
Willingham: 1.2, 2.5, 2.8, 1.7, 1.8 (Total: 10.0)
Baseball Prospectus from 2007-2011
Beltran: 4.7, 5.0, 3.5, 0.8, 3.4 (Total: 17.4)
Cuddyer: 1.5, 0.5, 1.3, 0.3, 2.8 (Total: 6.4)
Willingham: 0.6, 1.6, 3.1, 2.0, 3.9 (Total: 11.2)
It’s obvious that Beltran is the best player of the three, but I do find it funny that considering all three players’ ages (Willingham and Cuddyer will be 33 on Opening Day, Beltran will be 34 soon after) that both Willingham and Cuddyer were worth 3-year deals while Beltran was worth 2. Beltran was twice the player Cuddyer was by FanGraphs and three times as much by the other metrics, and Willingham was better than him as well. In the last three seasons where Beltran played only 287 games mainly due to the knee problems he’s been hobbled with, his WAR average was better than Cuddyer’s over the last five. And in 337 less games, too!
Yet Cuddyer’s ability to play multiple positions seemingly allowed him to tack on a few extra million dollars onto his contract, as he played first base relatively well and was either league average or (well) below elsewhere according to UZR (including a blistering -20.8 at second base in 140 innings last year). However, he will be mainly playing right field for the Rockies, which is why he is being thrown into this mix with the other corner outfielders. And when you look at the total picture for him, it was easy for Beltran and Boras to hone in on the Cardinals, who were looking for someone to fill a corner outfield or first base spot for them after the departure of Pujols.
So knowing this, they went after yet another injury prone switch hitter, giving them a chance to strike gold with who they hope is The Second Coming of El Grande Puma. Considering the Cardinals seemed willing to give either Allen Craig a full-time gig in right field come Opening Day 2012, Beltran was both an upgrade and a calculated risk, as it left Craig waiting in the wings to take over if and when Beltran needed a break or got injured. Craig will be coming off right knee surgery and won’t be ready by the beginning of the season, but all of a sudden, an outfield combination of Beltran, Jay, Craig and Matt Holliday looks pretty damn good for the defending World Series champions. The move also allows Berkman to take over at first base, where his bat is still a major force and has a chance to not be that big of a step down from Pujols. However, there is a BIG caveat with that notion, as Berkman will be expected to put up the MVP-like numbers he did in 2011 on yet another 1-year deal as he enters his Age 36 season.
So how much does Beltran have to give St. Louis in order for the contract to be a success? Well, considering his average WAR between the three major metrics above was roughly 20, and with the average amount of a win being about $5 million or so, it’s easy to say that if Beltran gives the Cardinals 8 WAR over two years that the contract was definitely worth it. However, considering Beltran’s injury history over the past few years, one might think that Beltran could only be counted on to play in roughly 125 games or so per season over the next two years, putting his WAR number at somewhere around the 6-7 mark if he plays even that much. It’s also important to keep in mind that the amount of money per win should move above the $5 million mark and closer to $6 million over the next few season, which might dilute his value over the time of the contract.
While Beltran’s defensive prowess is nowhere near where it was in his heyday when he was the best all-around center fielder in baseball, his bat not only carries a corner, but can flourish there, especially if the Cardinals can keep him healthy. Considering the money they had left over from not being able to re-sign Pujols, the Cardinals could have done much worse, especially when it means that they have Beltran insurance in the form of Craig and can let Berkman play first base. It’s just sad that the Rockies put in so much for a player that was not nearly on the level of Beltran’s, let alone the player Minnesota replaced him with in Willingham, as the Cardinals might have been able to get Beltran at a relative bargain. Instead, they will be paying him more than Berkman over the next two years and hoping that much like Berkman, Beltran can find some of his old form knowing he will be playing for a team in contention for the National League Central title as long as he wears the St. Louis red and grays.