On-Base Perception

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Should teams be wary of Carlos Beltran?

Carlos Beltran of the St. Louis Cardinals rounds

Carlos Beltran of the St. Louis Cardinals rounds third base after he hits a three-run home run in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates during Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium. (Oct. 3, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

There are other players in this free agent class who will get more money and more years – but few appear more coveted than Carlos Beltran.

The Cardinals outfielder could return to St. Louis. But he’s also been linked to the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers and nearly every other market with designs on contention in 2014.

And Beltran has done plenty to create the buzz that currently exists around him.

One of the most prolific postseason hitters ever, Beltran hit two more home runs in the playoffs this year and batted .294 in the World Series with a .400 on-base percentage. Cardinals’ pitchers had little success getting Boston’s David Ortiz out, but Beltran accounted for one of Ortiz’s few postseason “failures,” robbing Big Papi of a three-run home run in Game 1 of the World Series. The play, which caused Beltran to throw his body into the right field bullpen wall at Fenway Park, bruised the outfielder’s ribs and he exited the game. But, incredibly, he was in the lineup the next night and for every other game of the World Series.

Despite playing elite center field defense and displaying great hitting prowess, Beltran has been underrated for much of his career, and he spent his prime playing for the hard-luck Mets.

Yet the appraisal of Beltran now appears to have swung in entirely the other direction. And it’s entirely possible that teams are too-highly valuing the soon-to-be 37-year-old.

Beltran’s traditional statistics were healthy last season. He hit .296 with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs.

But there’s cause for concern.

He posted a walk rate of just 6.3 percent, his lowest since 1998, Beltran’s rookie season. That contributed to a .339 on-base percentage that was Beltran’s lowest since a dismal 2005 debut season with the Mets.

His .195 isolated power was at least 30 points lower than his numbers from 2011 (.225) and 2012 (.227). He slugged .491, which is still good, but marks a second straight year of decline from the .525 slugging percentage he posted in 2011.

Beltran remains an average base runner; just don’t ask him to steal. Beltran posted double-digit stolen base totals every season from 1999-2009. He’s stolen 22 combined during the last four seasons, including a career-worst two stolen bases last season.

From 2006-2009, Beltran had 42 Defensive Runs Saved for the Mets in centerfield and posted very good Ultimate Zone Ratings. DRS is the primary defensive measurement used in the all-encompassing Wins Above Replacement player stat and Ultimate Zone Rating measures how often a player gets to balls hit in his zone.

As a right fielder in 2013, Beltran had -6 DRS and a -15.3 UZR. Aside from a few highlight reel plays he made during the playoffs when everyone was watching, Beltran was below average in the field during the season.

Beltran was worth 2.0 WAR in 2013, according to Fangraphs’ valuation. That was tied for 98th among qualified players. Beltran’s WAR ranks behind fellow free agent outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury (5.8), Shin-Soo Choo (5.2), Nate McLouth (2.5) and Marlon Byrd (4.1) and trade candidates Mark Trumbo (2.5) and Andre Ethier (2.9). Heck, Daniel Murphy was even a 3 WAR player for the Mets last season.

The problem seems to be that our evaluation of Beltran largely comes from our memory of him playing in his prime in Flushing or on the grand stage of the postseason.

And while he’s still a solid player, he’s showing signs of decline at an age when you don’t expect him to rebound.

A strong franchise with a lot of outfield depth (like the Red Sox) could probably weather the gamble if it doesn’t work out. A team like the Yankees, however, would be relying on Beltran to solidify their lineup at a time when Beltran may not be capable of doing so.

Tags: Carlos Beltran , St. Louis Cardinals , free agent scouting report , free agent

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