There are a number of factors that complicate any projection of the type of package it will take to land Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran, who is far and away the biggest name and most accomplished hitter that is known to be available on this summer's trade market.
1) Lack of supply, abundance of demand
Right now, the Mets are a one-man OPEC sitting on top of one of baseball's most precious resources: a dispensible middle-of-the-order bat. Beltran entered yesterday hitting .293 with a .389 on base percentage and .523 slugging percentage in 386 plate appearances for the Mets. He has hit 14 home runs while striking out just 58 times. In 43 games at the cavernous Citi Field, he is hitting .318/.409/.589 with eight home runs. And he is just now entering what historically has been his hottest time of the year: his three most productive months throughout his career, at least in terms of OPS, have been July (.848), August (.904) and September/October (.869). Beltran is the rare switch-hitter without any noticable holes, a career .280/.360/.486 hitter from the left side of the plate and a career .291/.362/.524 hitter from the right side. His contact and on base numbers are down from the right side this season (.232 average with a .291 OBP), but he is slugging .547 with eight home runs and has struck out 19 times in 95 at-bats.
Beltran and the Athletics' Josh Willingham are the only two bona fide everyday players available on the market. The Padres Ryan Ludwick would help a lot of teams, but he has not had the consistency that either Willingham or Beltran have displayed during their careers. But Beltran is the creme d'la creme. Willingham has battled injuries this season while posting numbers well below his career norms. And he does not have the type of balance or power that Beltran does.
Simply put, there is Beltran is the one elite power hitter who is known to be available this season. In fact, he might be the one elite player available. While speculation involving Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez seems to be picking up steam, this year's market at this point is devoid of the type of blue-chip pitcher that dominated the headlines the last three seasons: C.C. Sabathia and Rich Harden in 2008, Roy Halladay, Jake Peavy and Cliff Lee in 2009, and Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee and Dan Haren last season.
That makes sense. After all, with so many pitchers trading places over the last few seasons, there was bound to come a time when the music stopped and no chairs were left. It's why the Rockies are smart to at least explore the possibility of trading Jimenez: in this market, who knows what he might command.
But it isn't just pitchers that are in short supply. In 2009, Victor Martinez and Matt Holliday both changed teams, along with Felipe Lopez and Freddy Sanchez, both of whom were in the middle of solid seasons. In 2008, it was Manny Ramirez, Jason Bay and Mark Teixeira, along with Xavier Nady.
This year, Beltran and Jose Reyes are the top two names who are believed to be available, but Reyes is not a power bat, and power is what most teams are looking for. Particularly right-handed power. Scoring is down across the game. Home runs are down across the game. Baseball is a Darwinian game, its evolution ebbing and flowing along with it's economy's invisible hand. In the steroid era, home runs sold tickets, and the game saw an explosion of left-handed players who made their money hitting them.
The past few years have seen lefties like Cole Hamels, David Price, Cliff Lee, Jaime Garcia, Jon Lester and Wandy Rodriguez establish themselves as antidotes to the previous decade's sluggers. Along with righties like Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Tommy Hanson, Josh Johnson, Jordan Zimmermann and Zack Greinke, there seems to be more young electricity in the pitching ranks than there has been in quite some time.
The Yankees may have been ahead of the curve when they began to stock up on hitters who had proven themselves even in this new era of improved pitching and decreased power: Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson. The Red Sox followed suit this offseason in landing Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Now, everybody else is looking for a similar piece. Even the Red Sox are looking to add offense, probably because they do not see much in the way of pitching options, and thus have decided to make their strength even stronger, similar to the Phillies last July.
2) Beltran's salary
So Ruben Amaro Jr. once again finds himself in pursuit of the top talent available. This time, though, he is not alone. In 2009 and 2010, the Phillies GM benefited from his ability to add significant payroll, which he did with the acquisitions of Lee and Oswalt. In Oswalt's case, the veteran righthander's no trade clause and short list of acceptable destinations further dwindled Amaro's competition. This year, though, Beltran seems destined to land with the contender that offers the Mets the most attractive package of prospects. If that means the Mets are forced to pick up some or all of the $6 million Beltran will be owed for the last two months of the season, then so be it, at least according to the reports out of New York. Although FoxSports.com reported yesterday that the Phillies and Red Sox have been the two most aggressive teams in pursuit of Beltran, offense-starved contenders like the Braves and Giants could also enter into the mix. The more teams bidding, the higher the price will go, particularly if more than one of them sees Beltran as the only suitable option available on the market. After all, teams must weigh the cost of not getting Beltran in addition to the cost of getting him.
For the Phillies, the cost of not getting him will include the potential of him landing with an other NL contender.
3) Beltran's free agency
Whoever lands Beltran will be landing him for the last two months of the regular season and whatever length of the postseason they experience. After that, he becomes a free agent. His agent is Scott Boras, so you can probably forget about signing him to an extension. And at 34 years old, coming off microfracture knee surgery that sidelined him for big chunks of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, he might not be a guy you would want to invest in. At least not at the number of dollars and years that Boras usually snags for his clients. So the Phillies would be trading away prospects for less than a half a season of production from a proven major league veteran. In fact, when you really boil it down, a team like the Phillies would be trading prospects for one postseason of production from a proven veteran. Because they have reached a point where the postseason is all that matters. They have reached a point where their fan base will view a first-round exit as the near-equivalent of not qualifying for the postseason. They have reached a point where two home divisional playoff games will not impact their bottom line in a substantial fashion, where the only way to invigorate the fan base for another regular season of ticket-purchasing is to show them another World Series, to remind them what it feels like, to remind them why they shell out their disposable income for three hours of baseball that the players and coaching staff will later downplay as "just one game."
But they have also reached a point where they need to develop young, cheap talent that can prop up their aging or soon-to-be-aging millionaires without propping up the payroll. The ultimate kick in the cup would be a season that includes both an early playoff exit and the departure of some of their coveted young talent.
Beltran would appear to be as safe a gamble as any. In 22 postseason games, he carries an average of .366, an on base percentage of .485, a slugging percentage of .817 and a ridiculous 11 home runs. To put that in comparison, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have played in 41 playoff games apiece in their careers. Howard has hit seven home runs. Utley has hit 10.
Over the last three Julys, three marquee position players have been traded midway through the final year on their contract. The most recent was Holliday in 2009. In 2008, Manny Ramirez and Mark Teixeira were both dealt in the final years of their deals.
Here are the packages that landed those players:
Matt Holliday, 29 years old, Athletics to Cardinals on July 24, 2009
1. 3B Brett Wallace: Wallace was one of the hottest young prospects in the game at the time of the deal. Prior to 2009 he was rated No. 40 by BA. Prior to 2010, rated No. 27. He's now with the Astros, where he is putting up a solid season.
2. OF Shane Peterson: The Cardinals' second round pick in 2008, he had hit .291/.400/.809 with one home run in 230 at-bats as a 20-year-old at rookie-league Batavia. He is now a 23-year-old in Oakland's system, where he is hitting .301/.383/.467 with nine home runs in 319 at-bats at Double and Triple-A
3. RHP Clayton Mortensen: He was a supplemental round pick of the Cardinals in 2007. In 2009 he was a 24-year-old at Triple-A Memphis, where he was 7-6 with a 4.37 ERA, 7.0 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 17 starts. He is now with the Rockies, where he has appeared in 16 games, including six starts, with a 3.86 ERA, 4.6 K/9, and 3.7 BB/9.
Manny Ramirez, 36 years old, Red Sox to Dodgers on July 31, 2008
Red Sox get:
1. OF Jason Bay
1. 3B Andy LaRoche: LaRoche was a 24-year-old at Triple-A who was rated before 2008 as the No. 31 prospect in the game by Baseball America. The Dodgers traded him to the Pirates.
2. OF Brandon Moss: Moss was a 24-year-old outfielder who was hitting .282/.346/.528 with eight home runs for Triple-A Pawtucket and .295/.337/.462 with two home runs in 78 at-bats for the Red Sox. He was once a well-regarded prospect, but his star had begun to fade a bit by the time of the deal. He is now in the Phillies minor league system at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
3. RHP Craig Hansen: He was a 24-year-old reliever who had a 5.58 ERA, 7.3 K/9 and 6.8 BB/9 in 32 appearances for the Red Sox at the time of the deal. Prior to the 2006 season he was rated No. 54 by Baseball America.
4. RHP Bryan Morris: Morris was a 21-year-old low-A starter who had a 3.20 ERA, 7.9 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 at the time of the deal. He is now a 24-year-old at Double-A Altoona, where he is pitching out of the bullpen with a 3.42 ERA, 7.3 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9 in 19 appearances, including six starts.
Mark Teixeira, 28 years old, Braves to Angels on July 29, 2008
1. 1B Casey Kotchman: Rated by Baseball America as the No. 6 prospect in the game prior to the 2005 season, Kotchman was a 25-year-old in the middle of his second full big league season when he was dealt. The previous season, he had hit .296/.372/.467 with 11 home runs in 443 at-bats. At the time of the deal in 2008, he was hitting .287/.327/.448 with 12 home runs in 373 at-bats. Kotchman struggled after the deal, spending unspectacular stints with the Red Sox and Mariners in addition to the Braves. This year, though, he is hitting .331/.391/.459 with four home run in 266 at-bats for the Rays.
2. RHP Stephen Marek: Marek was an up-and-coming 24-year-old reliever when he was dealt. In 34 appearances at Double-A Arkansas he had a 3.66 ERA, 11.0 K/9 and 4.0 BB/9. He is still in the Braves system, but has yet to break into the major leagues. That won't happen any time soon. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May.
So. . .
What does all of this tell us about Beltran's price tag?
For starters, the Phillies should be prepared to part with one of their better prospects. Sure, Beltran has question marks about his health and age that did not exist with Holliday and Teixeira. And Ramirez was one the game's best players at the time of his deal. But those reservations only matter if a GM is bidding against himself, or if every interested GM allows those reservations to temper their offers, which would seem unlikely to happen given the aforementioned supply/demand problem.
The Phillies have two prospects that are currently ranked in Baseball America's Top 50, both of them at Class A Clearwater: RHP Jarred Cosart and 1B Jonathan Singleton. Regardless of BA's rankings, the following players are regarded by the Phillies to be at the same elite level as Cosart and Singleton: RHP Trevor May (Class A), RHP Brody Colvin (Class A), C Sebastian Valle (Class A). If the bidding reaches a point where the Phillies are required to part with two of those players, they will likely have some serious reservations about staying in the hunt. You can probably include Lakewood lefty Jesse Biddle in this group. Same goes for if the Mets insist on Domonic Brown being the center piece of the deal.
But circumstance suggests that Mets GM Sandy Alderson will look for young pitching, following the model of his former organization, the Oakland A's, which played in a pitcher's ballpark (like Citi Field) and stockpiled a glut of young arms: Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, just to name a few. Alderson is a smart man, and he knows that the key to sustainable success is a foundation of young, home-grown pitching. The Mets do not have that foundation right now. But if they can develop one, they have the type of resources that can enable them to be good for a long time. Alderson was just hired, so he is not under any sort of pressure. He can plan for the long run. And the long run starts with pitching.
That's good news for the Phillies, who have enough young pitching to pull off a couple of headline deals. Colvin and Trevor May are both held in esteem similar to Cosart. And Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay will both likely be here through at least 2013. And you have to think that the Phillies will do everything possible to keep Cole Hamels around.
So cross out Singleton and focus on the pitchers (besides, the Mets have a young first baseman in Ike Davis). The Mets will take whichever one of Cosart, May or Colvin who they rate the highest. Odds are it is Cosart.
The team that lands Beltran might be the team that can best augment the young, elite pitching prospect the Red Sox seek.
Perhaps the Mets start out by seeking Cosart and Biddle, or Cosart and Triple-A reliever Justin DeFratus.
Perhaps the Phillies start out by offering Cosart and Double-A righthander Austin Hyatt (25 years old, 4.23 ERA, 10.1 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 in 19 starts this season).
Keep in mind the Mets appear to have all of the leverage.
In a vaccuum, I'd say that Cosart, Hyatt and perhaps a reliever like Michael Schwimer or Phillippe Aumont or a younger position prospect like Jiwan James or Tyson Gillies would be a fair price to pay.
Anything more than that and the Phillies need to consider targeting a less-coveted alternative like Willingham, or perhaps making a strong take-it-or-leave-it offer for a guy like Hunter Pence.
Cosart and Biddle (or any of the other young starters) is too high a price to pay. I would surprised if the Phillies gave up De Fratus. A cheap bullpen is going to be one of the keys to sustaining their success over the next few seasons. And a lot of people in the organization are really high on De Fratus.
That leaves plenty of potential combinations to be decided by one high-stakes poker game. Do the Mets secretly covet one of the Phillies' pitchers more than anybody the Red Sox or Braves have to offer? Do the Phillies view Willingham or Ryan Ludwick as a palpable back-up plan? Do the Mets really have an offer on the table from another team that is equal or better than Cosart, Biddle and Hyatt or Cosart, Biddle and Freddy Galvis or Cosart, Hyatt and J.C. Ramirez? Is that other team willing to pick up all of Beltran's remaining salary?
Unknowns like these are what negotiations are all about. And it's why Amaro likes to keep a tight lid on his true feelings about other team's personnel. And it's why you should always remember that when it comes to the trade deadline rumor mill, the vast majority of information is out there because somebody wants it out there, not necessarily because it reflects reality.
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