ONE OF THE more intriguing story lines of the upcoming offseason will be the machinations of that little ol' ballclub on Roosevelt Boulevard in Queens. Sandy Alderson has spent the last 3 years covering himself in sprocket grease and sawdust, clearcutting the Mets' roster to engender new growth. Now he has plenty of money to spend, and a boss who sounds a bit antsy to return to the days when the franchise was a significant part of the national conversation.
"I want to get out of the hope business," Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said recently, according to the New York Post. "It's not a good business model."
This is relevant to the Phillies' outfield situation mostly because the Mets' outfield situation is the worst in the National League. How bad did things look at Citi Field? The middling .720 OPS posted by Phillies outfielders was 35 points higher than the one recorded by the Mets, by far the worst mark in the NL. Which means the two NL East rivals could end up going head-to-head even before the season starts, especially when you consider that both teams' top draft picks are protected, meaning each can sign a top free agent without fear of surrendering a first-round selection (the Phillies are slated to draft at No. 7 overall, the Mets at No. 10).
One name familiar in both Philadelphia and New York: Carlos Beltran.
The switch-hitting slugger's tenure with the Mets ended in messy fashion, but he and Wilpon reportedly talked at the All-Star Game this year, and Beltran did not rule out a reunion when asked about it by the Post. While it is still difficult to envision the Mets targeting a player who will be 37 next season and thus entering the territory where the demands of everyday defensive duties become more difficult to handle, the specter of Alderson in charge of a robust checking account could serve to drive up the price of said player for a team such as the Phillies. And that raises the question: at what price, Beltran?
If every free-agent signee were able to guarantee a replication of the previous year's performance, Beltran would be No. 1 on the Phillies' list. In 600 plate appearances for the Cardinals in 2013, he hit .296/.339/.491 with 24 home runs. More important than Beltran's overall numbers is the fact that he is a switch-hitter who carries a career .289/.355/.523 batting line facing lefties from the right side of the plate.
In other words, he would offer the Phillies' left-heavy lineup more balance than virtually any other free-agent candidate. Problem is, the free-agent market is the ultimate case of caveat emptor, and there are plenty of reasons to think a team could end up regretting even a contract similar to the 2-year, $26 million deal Beltran signed with the Cardinals before the 2012 season.
The red flags:
1. Over the last three seasons, Beltran's OPS from the right side of the plate has dropped from .923 to .867 to .729.
2. During that same time period, Beltran's overall OBP fell from .385 to .346 to .339, while his slugging percentage dropped from .525 to .495 to .491.
3. Beltran will turn 37 next April.
While Beltran has stayed off the disabled list the last two seasons, he is at an age at which a player's physical abilities can diminish quickly, particularly a player with a history of knee problems. His solid power and contact numbers suggest that another year of middle-of-the-order production is not an unreasonable expectation. But signing him would mean elevating the risk level of a lineup that already includes aging veterans Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins.
The feeling here is that there will be a team that feels better prepared to pay for the risk/reward ratio that Beltran offers. Such a team would feature a lineup that can contend, even if its, new high-priced outfielder suffers a significant regression, and a payroll that can absorb such a hit, and, perhaps, the flexibility of giving said outfielder some at-bats as a designated hitter. The Yankees, for one. The Red Sox, for another (if free-agent centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury signs elsewhere). The Tigers, the Cardinals, the Indians, the Rangers - you won't find many contenders who couldn't use another .800 OPS, 25-home-run hitter in their outfield. Several of those teams will have plenty of incentive to target the top of the market, where Ellsbury and the Reds' Shin-Soo Choo are in position for deals of 5 or more years at $18 million or more annually (you can bet Scott Boras is thinking significantly more in both departments).
But that still leaves a slew of teams looking for value plays in the middle of the market, which features Beltran, Nelson Cruz, Curtis Granderson, Corey Hart, Marlon Byrd and Mike Morse. After that, you have the Nate McLouths and David DeJesuses of the world. There are only so many chairs. And at some point, the music will stop, driving up the prices for whatever outfield bats are available on the trade market.
The Phillies' Ruben Amaro Jr. will not be negotiating from a position of strength, and that could make the price tag for a player such as Beltran a dangerous proposition.