One $9 Million Question Answered, One More Arises

Minnesota Twins vs Seattle Mariners in Seattle

Adrian Beltre, The Player

This off-season has had quite an emphasis on trusting higher-order statistical metrics as, surely, both Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre do not fit the conventional mold for key cogs on championship caliber teams. Two players whose values lie predominantly with their defensive production, 2010 will be a trial by fire for the front office’s new-fangled policy of relying on fielding.

Sabermetricians worldwide rejoice at this move towards the mainstream (myself included). As a Red Sox fan, however, I find myself wishing some other team were the guinea pig.

Which begs the question: what kind of player are the Red Sox getting with Adrian Beltre?

In short, Beltre has some significant question marks – most of which arose in 2009.

For starters, the injury bug reared its ugly head last season in a big way. Having played at least 143 games in every season since 2002, Beltre missed 51 contests in ’09 – the result of a shoulder surgery, a balky “groin,” and a foot injury.

For any baseball player – especially one on the wrong side of thirty – this is a troubling sign. The quickest way to derail a career is to be befallen by injuries. So, hopefully, this will be quick a quick bug.

As evidenced in ’09, shoulder injuries have a way of sapping the strength of once powerful batsmen. A good frame of reference for this type of malady is Scott Rolen c. 2005-2009.

After posting 8 consecutive 20+ home runs seasons from 1997-2004, Rolen’s missed 101 games after May – slugging just 5 homers in 196 at-bats. He recovered again in 2006, with 22 long balls before again falling victim to shoulder injuries, which have limited him to just 30 homers in his last 3 seasons.

Beltre’s power outage in 2009 can certainly be explained away by shoulder issues. After posting 20 home runs in 6 of 7 seasons from 2002-2008 (including a whopping 48 homers in 2004), the shoulder woes brought Beltre’s home run total to just 8 and dropped his home runs per fly ball rate to just 5.6 percent.

Still, these injury problems do provide a bit of optimism for Beltre’s prospects in 2010. If he can recover fully from his injuries, there is no reason he can’t return to form next season. There are many players who have suffered from shoulder issues and gone on to regain their power stroke. Troy Glaus, for instance, missed significant parts of 2003 and 2004, yet continued mashing as soon as he returned. The key is staying healthy and hoping the injuries don’t crop up in the future.

For next season, Beltre will have to bring his home run per fly ball rate back up to the 13 percent range to be effective – a level he hovered around rather consistently since 2003. If not, it will be a disappointing year at the plate, as Beltre has little else to help him make up for such a deficit.

Even so, Beltre is such an elite fielder that, even with a poor season at the plate, his year is not lost. Even in 2009 – when his bat fell off the face of the Earth, posting just a .683 OPS – Beltre was no slouch, registering a decent WAR of 2.4. Though defense is more famous for winning championships in other sports, it sure does pay the bills for Beltre.

And there’s plenty of upside here, too. Even with a pedestrian offensive year in 2008 (.266/.327/.457), Beltre’s 12.7 UZR pushed his WAR mark to 4.1.

In fact, his lowest WAR mark over the past 8 seasons was last year and, (excluding his absurd 10.0 WAR in 2004) he has averaged a 3.357 mark since ’02. That’s quite a valuable player.

Adrian Beltre, The Contract

But beyond Adrian Beltre “the player”, is Beltre, “the contract” – and he’s a very good one at that, in isolation.

Sources close to the negotiation quote the deal as a one-year, $9 million contract for 2010 with a player option in 2011 worth $5 million. In short, it is an exceptional deal for the Sox – in isolation.

For a risky player who was expected to sign for more money and more years, the Sox all but eliminated any long-term risk while bringing in an upgrade at third base. Yes, Mike Lowell’s contract confounds the situation – and he should be finding a new home soon – but a one-year investment for a player of Beltre’s caliber is a boon for the organization. In isolation, the Beltre contract couldn’t be better.

But the old question again arises: what is to be done with Mike Lowell?

Now that Beltre’s $9 million question has been answered, the focus shifts to Lowell’s contract. The last time his name was found in the papers, Lowell was on his way to Texas, with Boston paying for $9 million of the $12 million owed to him in ‘10.

Fast forwarded to January 6th and Lowell is still in a Boston uniform – the team still on the hook for every penny of his $12 million salary.

At this point, there is little that can be done other than shipping the embattled third baseman elsewhere. Lowell has to be traded. There’s no way around it. He won’t play enough to warrant his current contract. He won’t be happy in the clubhouse. And, most importantly from a management standpoint: you can’t bench starting major leaguers.

A Move Within a Move

Maybe that last point runs contrary to the whole business side of sports – that, because you pay these players so much, they should do whatever the hell you tell ‘em to do. He should be the good soldier, not reply, and go into camp as Beltre’s backup. If he whines about not playing, too bad! Go get a day job!

Though, in reality, that’s not the way things work. Aging veterans who have earned their stripes always get traded – and this may very well be the last bastion of humanity left in the business side of sports. If a guy is genuinely unhappy – and his contract isn’t too large and if he’s good enough – the team will find a way to move him.

That’s where Lowell is right now – dancing around in the perpetual limbo that is Major League Baseball.

But that’s really the gag at this point, isn’t it? Lowell will be traded, which, at the end of it all, could push the net cost for the Red Sox putting a third baseman on the field to over $18 million. Beltre, alone, costs $9 million. Lowell – if the Texas deal is any indication – will cost the same.

In addition, by signing Adrian Beltre, the team has, essentially, robbed itself of much of its own leverage toward moving Lowell. This doesn’t happen often, but the team has actually backed itself into a corner.

Sure, there are teams out there who will take on part of Mike Lowell’s contract. But, at this point in the offseason, parting with Lowell may be easier said than done, as many teams willing to spend on an option at the hot corner have already settled on their man. Seattle signed Chone Figgins; San Francisco has Mark DeRosa; the Braves inked Troy Glaus; the Phillies are – ostensibly – satisfied with Placido Polanco.

Still, the Twins are without a third baseman, as are the Cardinals. And don’t expect the Angels to start Opening Day with Brandon Wood manning third base. All could be potential trade partners with the Sox.

Even so, the Sox are in danger of receiving a lesser return on such a deal because the team is now forced to trade him – and everyone else knows it.

Hopefully, the fact that Beltre is now off the market will improve the team’s leverage just enough to still make a favorable deal for the team, because… Hey! There’s really no one left other than Miguel Tejada… maybe. But, a trade will still cost the Sox a pretty penny.

So, is this the true value of Adrian Beltre? Is it, perhaps, also indicative of the front office’s obsession with ridding the organization of an aging slugger? Maybe they really backed themselves into a corner when the trade with Texas fell through, knowing there was no way they could keep Lowell while also keeping him happy.

Truth be told, the past month has been such a strange chain of events that the potential motives behind the transactions are almost more interesting that the moves themselves.

But I digress.

In the end, all things being equal, the Sox likely just upgraded by 1-2 wins. For what will probably amount to costing the team 6 million additional dollars, it’s really not a bad move.

After all, you can’t fault the team for improving, which is exactly what the Sox did. Though, overall, it’s really more of a bunt single than a home run – a risky move, but still a well-placed ball and a runner on first.

Welcome, Adrian Beltre!

Lowell… adios! Hopefully things work out in 2010.

Now, if only Bill Hall could remember how to hit lefties.