Carlos Beltran recently stated that he would like to finish his career with the New York Mets, but also suggested that he would accept a trade before his current seven year, $119 million dollar deal expires at the end of next season.
Where has the time gone? It seems like just yesterday that Beltran, fresh off a spectacular postseason with the Astros, hit the free agent market as one of the hottest commodities in recent memory. With Bernie Williams’ decline evident and his days as a centerfielder dwindling, Beltran was regarded as a natural target for the Yankees, who were coming off an embarrassing 2004 ALCS loss to the Red Sox. At the time, however, the Yankees decided that they needed pitching more and couldn’t afford both an ace and top notch centerfielder like Beltran. So, instead, they opted to trade for Randy Johnson and then resign him to a two-year/$32 million dollar extension, which, combined with his 2005 salary and the $9 million sent to Arizona, amounted to a total commitment of $57 million over three years (or about the same annual value as the contract Beltran eventually signed with the Mets).
Even before Johnson proved to be a disappointment in New York, many questioned the wisdom of the Yankees’ choice, especially after Beltran offered the team a last minute discount. Those feelings only increased as Johnson departed just two seasons later and the Yankees struggled to fill their hole in centerfield, all while Beltran put up MVP-type numbers. With Beltran’s contract finally nearing its completion, however, we can just now begin to judge the true impact of the Yankees’ decision.
As mentioned, from the time Beltran signed with the Mets until the present day, the Yankees have had several centerfielders (from Bernie to Bubba to Damon to Melky and then some). So, in order to do a fair comparison, the first order of business is to create a composite player for each season under consideration. To do that, we’ve determined each player’s percentage of playing time in centerfield and then multiplied that rate by both runs created and salary. Although this approach doesn’t exactly isolate performance compiled while playing centerfield, or account for economic issues like sunk costs, it does provide a useful approximation of the resources the Yankees spent on the position as well as the performance they received from it.
Yankees’ Centerfielders, 2005 to 2010
Note: Players with less than 2% contribution excluded.
Source: Baseball-reference.com and Cots Contracts
Now that we have a snap shot of what the composite Yankees’ centerfielder looked like for each of the last six seasons, we can make a comparison to Beltran.
Cost and Production Comparison: Beltran vs. Yankees’ CF
|Carlos Beltran||Yankees CF’er|
As illustrated by the table above, the Yankees have spent over $100,000 less per run created from center field than they otherwise would have for Beltran, assuming he would have performed at similar levels in the Bronx. Obviously, Beltran’s injuries over the last two seasons have heavily tilted the scales toward the Yankees’ centerfield committee, but when you are assessing long-term deals, health becomes a major consideration. What really makes the comparison one-sided, however, is the Yankees’ ability to inexpensively create runs from centerfield (or in at least half the season, their willingness to accept very little production).
To this point, we’ve left out the defensive side of the argument, which is no small exclusion when you consider the importance of the position as well as Beltran’s glorified reputation for playing it. Unfortunately, defensive metrics do not allow for the same level of reliable analysis, but nonetheless, the UZR/150 rates for both Beltran and all Yankee centerfielders are presented below.
UZR/150 Comparison: Beltran vs. Yankees’ CF
As you can see, the Yankees were pretty awful in centerfield over the first half of the period, but since then have really picked it up. Beltran, meanwhile, only posted two outstanding defensive seasons, according to UZR/150. Again, these figures probably should be taken with a grain of salt, but that doesn’t mean Beltran’s overall superiority on defense should be ignored. Having said that, the Yankees strong defensive play in center has significantly mitigated that edge and probably doesn’t drastically change any conclusion derived from the offensive comparison.
The Yankees usually count success in terms of championships, so one could probably make the argument that Beltran’s 2006-2008 contribution would have made a World Series victory more likely in each of those seasons. Then again, one could probably also argue that Beltran’s 2009 salary would have prevented the Yankees from obtaining both Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia, and we all know the implications of that scenario. In other words, it’s probably best to narrow our focus to the individual (or composite individual) performances of the players involved. On that basis, it seems as if the Yankees have been better off for not having signed Beltran.
One final note. This year, the Yankees are facing a similar decision to the one they encountered in 2004: sign an ace lefty (Cliff Lee) or a two-way outfielder (Carl Crawford). Although Lee is younger than Johnson was then, and Beltran was a better player than Crawford is now, the similarities are still intriguing. Based on early indications, it seems as if Brian Cashman has already opted for the pitcher, but if history is the judge, it may be wisest for the Yankees to ignore both.
The heck with history…go get Cliff Lee!