David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
As Sandy Alderson works the phones to find the best return for Carlos Beltran, the most coveted outfielder on the trade market has told friends that he prefers to stay in the National League, according to people familiar with his situation. Beltran also told Newsday this week that two other critical factors will influence his decision -- the quality of a team's pitching staff and his aversion to being the DH.
Usually, what a player wants is of little consequence to a general manager at this time of year. But for Beltran, who negotiated a full no-trade clause into his seven-year, $119-million contract, it means everything -- and that ultimately will decide where he plays the remainder of this season.
The last time Beltran switched leagues was 2004, and he had no say when the Royals shipped him to the Astros. Not that Beltran was bothered much by the National League. His batting average dropped 20 points to .258, but he still had 23 home runs and 53 RBIs in 90 regular-season games before carrying Houston to Game 7 of the NLCS with an epic October performance.
Now, at age 34, Beltran has spent half of his career with the Mets in the NL, and there's no doubt that familiarity would be an asset for his next club. When asked this week, Beltran denied a league switch would be a deal-breaker, but he did acknowledge it takes some getting used to.
"It's not as important," Beltran said. "When I was in Kansas City and moved to the National League, I thought I was going to be like, 'Whoa. This is a totally different thing.' Sometimes it takes you more time to know the pitchers, but you're still playing the game.
"I'm more focused on competing than the leagues."
There are teams that fit both preferences, however, and the Phillies and Giants appear to be the leaders, with Beltran perhaps needing some extra incentive to join the Red Sox if they come up with the most attractive package. As for pitching staffs and his anti-DH stance, those would be checkmarks in the plus column for Philadelphia and San Francisco.
If two teams offer similar value, such as the Phillies and Red Sox, Beltran said he will size up both teams from a pitching perspective. As of Thursday, the Phillies and Giants -- with their intimidating rotations -- were tied for the top spot in the majors with a 3.12 staff ERA. The Red Sox were ranked 15th with a 3.91 ERA.
"Right now, if it happens that I have to choose between one of the two, then I have to sit down and say you know what, the decision will be based more on the chances of being able to say they have a good pitching staff," Beltran said. "Remember, baseball is about pitching, so you want to be on a team where they have a good pitching staff, because those are the guys that are going to get you to the playoffs."
That is Beltran's goal, after all, to make it back to the postseason for what would be only the third time of his career -- and the first since the ill-fated trip with the Mets in 2006.
Beltran also maintains a strong desire to play the outfield on an everyday basis, something that didn't seem like a possibility for him only five months ago.
After the All-Star Game, in which he was the NL's designated hitter, Beltran made it clear that he was unhappy being cast in such a limited role. Now that he's played in 93 of the Mets' first 98 games, he feels as though his knees can hold up to daily outfield work and will choose his next team accordingly.
It's that important.
"Yeah, for me it is," Beltran said. "You can take maybe DH once a week, and that would be fun because it would give you like a half-day off. But every day, nah, that's not me. That also will play out in my decision."