On Friday night, Jon Heyman wrote an article discussing where free agent Carlos Beltran may end up, and he mentioned that the Royals “look like a real threat” to sign him. The Royals having interest in their former star should come as no surprise, as they have mentioned it before and seem willing to surrender their first round draft pick in order to acquire Beltran’s services.
I, like many other Royals fans, have been thinking how great it would be to bring Beltran home to Kansas City, where he can return a struggling franchise to glory as he finishes out a Hall of Fame-worthy career. The movie script practically writes itself. The dream scenario of Beltran bringing a World Series crown to Kansas City has run through my mind on countless occasions, and I’d be lying if I told you that picturing that moment doesn’t make me a little bit emotional.
As Billy Beane said in Moneyball, “How can you not get romantic about baseball?”
Some of my favorite Royals-related memories include watching Beltran roam center field at the K. His home run-saving catch against the Mariners in 2003 – and the camera shot of Darrell May saying “WOW” immediately afterward – will always bring a smile to my face when I remember it. Beltran made ridiculously difficult plays look ridiculously easy. Any time I played in the outfield between 1999 and 2004, I would emulate his crow hop/somersault on all my throws to the infield. The 2003 season was probably the most fun summer of my life, even though the season started with me in a hospital bed. That’s how amazing that year was. Beltran was injured to start the year, but once he was healthy, he had a terrific season, putting up 6.8 fWAR in just 141 games. Despite that season being a complete fluke for the Royals, thinking back to me watching Beltran play baseball for my favorite team still elicits feelings of pure joy.
All of that makes what I’m about to say even more painful:
I’m not sure the Royals signing Beltran to a contract would be a great idea.
Believe me, I would be ecstatic to see Beltran in a Royals uniform one more time. I think he could still be a productive player, and with a couple more strong seasons in Kansas City, he may end up in Cooperstown wearing a Royals hat.
However, I’m not sure Beltran is a solid fit for this current roster. Before you tar and feather me, hear me out. With Beltran’s age and injury history, he wouldn’t be able to play in right field every day, and when he does play in right field, he likely won’t be able to play it well defensively. In 2013, Beltran’s UZR of -15.3 was the 2nd worst in baseball among qualified outfielders. Only 13 outfielders in baseball posted a worse DRS total than Beltran (-6). His range and his arm are not what they used to be, and because the Royals’ pitching staff is so dependent on having an excellent defense behind them, Beltran may not work well in right field. It’s possible having Lorenzo Cain or Jarrod Dyson in center field can help to cover some of Beltran’s deficiencies, but they can only do so much.
Another option would be to bring Beltran in to first base and convert Eric Hosmer into a full-time right fielder. The problem with that, however, is that instead of just making one position weak (RF), you’ve weakened two positions immediately, while also making the overall infield defense worse. Hosmer won a Gold Glove this season largely for his work in picking errant throws out of the dirt. The left side of the infield would need to be much more precise with their throws to first if Beltran moves there. And as I’ve already mentioned, when 40% of the rotation is comprised of Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie, the defense needs to be as strong as possible to improve the pitchers’ results. I’m willing to sacrifice some defense for offense, but I’m not sure Beltran would be able to overcome that defensive loss enough with just his bat.
Since Beltran probably won’t play in the field every day, he’ll need to get significant time at designated hitter. You may or may not know this, but the Royals already have a designated hitter, and a pretty good one at that. In the last 4 seasons, Billy Butler has a wOBA of .362 in 2,698 plate appearances. In that same timeframe, Beltran has a wOBA of .364 in 2,072 plate appearances. Beltran has more power, but Butler has better contact skills and patience. Despite Butler’s 2013 season being less impressive than we hoped, he’s still just 27 years old, while Beltran is 9 years older. Due to the typical aging curve for hitters, Beltran’s projection (according to Steamer) for next season is a wOBA of .352 and 1.8 fWAR. That same projection system has Butler down for a wOBA of .363 and 2.4 fWAR. Even if you don’t trust the accuracy of projection systems, assuming that Beltran will definitely be a better hitter than Butler in 2014 is rather foolish. It’s possible that Butler doesn’t return to his power numbers from 2010 to 2012, but it’s just as likely – or even more likely – that age and injuries catch up to Beltran, thus limiting his impact potential.
Butler is under contract for $8 million in 2014, and the Royals have a $12.5 million option for 2015. It’s not a lot of money, but for a player with no defensive contributions, you do want to make sure you’re getting enough from him at the plate to make the contract worthwhile. However, when you consider that Beltran is likely going to command a 3 or 4 year contract at $14-15 million per year, Butler’s contract looks even more appealing. Surrendering a draft pick to sign Beltran isn’t the worst thing, since the upcoming draft is deep in talent, and the Royals will be adding a pick once Ervin Santana signs a lucrative contract with another team. But committing 3 or 4 years and that much money to an aging slugger will almost certainly be an overpay.
The Royals could choose to sign Beltran and trade Butler for other pieces, and that could work. There are some teams out there – the Mariners and Orioles, to name a couple – who could use Butler’s bat in their lineup. And if Dayton Moore could get a fair return for Butler, it would be silly to say he shouldn’t be traded. But it’s far from a certainty that the trade would end up being a win for the Royals. As I’ve pointed out, Beltran may not be able to fully replace Butler’s bat in 2014, let alone in 2015 when Beltran will be 38 years old. I could envision a scenario in which a second baseman or starting pitcher is acquired in exchange for Butler and the team improves, but I would argue keeping Butler and signing someone like Omar Infante or Kelly Johnson would be a better use of resources than signing Beltran.
Again, I would love to see Beltran in Kansas City. I get goosepumps imagining him hitting a huge home run in Kauffman Stadium next October to give the Royals a championship. He’s one of my 3 or 4 favorite Royals of all time. But after considering all of the factors – his defense, the presence of Butler, the cost – I don’t believe offering Beltran the contract he’s going to get would be a wise decision for the Royals. Unless he’s willing to give a very significant hometown discount, or if MLB will allow the Royals to play with 2 designated hitters, it’s tough for me to see a great fit for the former Kansas City great to return.