Why 2015 Should Hint At Fun To Come Part 4: The Sargasso Summer of Adrian Beltre
In writing this column, I was forced to confront a long list of times in my life where I was wrong. It was worthy of a swords-and-sandals epic.
The highlights: not taking up guitar or piano; thinking I’d never use my freshman math courses again; owning jorts; believing my friend who claimed he owned a real Hoverboard; thinking 20 feet wasn’t really that far when the grass below is soft; arguing Dwight Evans was as deserving Hall of Famer than Dennis Eckersley (Sabermetrics still has my back a bit there); believing the host at the first college party I attended when they said, “The spinning will stop, all you have to do is hurl”. And finally, believing finger-wagging Raffy.
On most of those, I thought I was right, and I wanted to be.
Today, I come before you fearing I may be right, and somehow hoping – against logic but with my heart – that I might be wrong.
I hope this is not, as I suspect, the swan-song summer of Adrian Beltre.
No, Not “Our Adrian”
By the time he leaves Texas, even as soon as this season, I’ll argue Beltre ranks no further than 5th among All-Time Rangers. This doesn’t count the “Rangers lifers” – the Sundbergs, Bells, Harrahs, Houghs or Greers – the guys that were solid for long periods of time, but never the best in the league as Rangers, and rarely All-Stars, with Texas or elsewhere. Without a deep dive or analysis, Adrian Beltre falls behind only the following Rangers, in terms of all-time quality:
At one time or another, everyone but Young likely would have gotten votes as the best player at his position in a season with the Rangers. Pudge and Juando combined for three. Raffy could have made a case for a couple in a less-‘roided-up era (and yes, I get the irony of that).
Not a single arm – not Ferguson Jenkins or Gaylord Perry’s short 70s runs, not Charlie Hough’s consistency in the 80s, not Nolan Ryan’s epic five-season run to end his long ride, nor Kevin Brown or Kenny Rogers from the 90s and 2000s, make the cut. Yu Darvish is still a few seasons like 2013-2014 before we can anoint him.
For EVERY season in Texas, based on sabermetrics and fan appeal, you can easily argue Adrian Beltre has been baseball’s best third baseman. You may even argue it’s not even close.
Here are Beltre’s core production stats and rankings since coming over from Boston (courtesy Baseball-Reference):
That’s an All-Star every year, a Top 15 MVP finish every year, including once 7th and once 3rd. Two Gold Gloves (arguments for we who watch him every day argue how that’s not 4) and 2 Silver Sluggers. He’s had two Top 5 Range Factor finishes at third, and three Top 5 fielding percentage finishes. For the tiebreaker, there’s no left side as FUN to watch as Beltre and Elvis Andrus.
Point being, over the range of his time in Texas, NO third baseman has been as consistently great in Major League Baseball as Adrian Beltre. There is exactly ONE player in Rangers history for whom you can claim the same: Pudge Rodriguez, from 1996 to 2000.
From age 22 to age 34, with ONE exception, there is a single player worthy of comparison to Beltre: Ron Santo. I would argue what Cubs fans feel for Santo is basically the exponential version of what Rangers fans feel for Beltre. Would we love for him to finish his career as a Ranger, then go on to do Spanish language color commentary interspersed with English-language color commentary across Rangers broadcasts? Absolutely. I want to see Tom Grieve try to touch Belt’s head. I do. That would be a Top 10 Rangers moment of all time.
And the inherent unsentimental, practical, and (usually) wise approach of Major League Baseball probably means Adrian Beltre will leave Texas by the trade deadline, and regardless of the haul, we will (very truly) weep. Because we do LOVE Beltre. Others have appreciated him. But I would bet the only stop where Beltre has never been booed, from Seattle to Chavez Ravine to Beantown, is Texas.
He IS our bat-bearing Nolan: a legend unappreciated before his time here, now revered beyond even that legend, and appropriately floating to a spot somewhere in between.
So why would we trade Belts, to whom, and for what?
Why is pretty obvious, if painful: he’s heading into the downside of his career, even if he’s an outlier. With very few exceptions, players who play a “high body impact position” – irregular body positions, range-dependent, constant bumps and bruises, and reflex driven (catcher, third base, middle infield, and center field) do not age well.
If we look at the players Baseball Reference considers the best comparisons for Beltre through their Age 35 season – based on cumulative stats and WAR – we see the following:
- Al Kaline (845) *
- Eddie Murray (843) *
- Cal Ripken (825) *
- Billy Williams (816) *
- Rafael Palmeiro (816)
- Jim Rice (813) *
- Dave Winfield (812) *
- Aramis Ramirez (811)
- Dale Murphy (810)
- Carl Yastrzemski (809) *
First, that’s a STELLAR class. Each player with an asterisk is a Hall of Famer. That’s 7 of 10. One (Palmeiro) is out only because of steroids. Another (Dale Murphy) was a constant debate candidate every year of his eligibility, and can have a solid case made that he was THE position player of the 1980s. The last (Ramirez) is the only Beltre contemporary on the list. The question becomes, is he a Hall of Famer in two years, or, as many of these players were, simply one more rung up towards the attic that holds the portrait of Dorian Gray?
Let’s compare the age 27-35 trends for each player and Adrian to try to get an idea. We’ll look at three key figures that best reflect age-related impacts. First is slugging percentage, which measures one of the first areas to decline if your name is not Bonds – power and/or speed (i.e., via impacts on doubles and triples); second is OPS+ (on-base plus slugging, adjusted for park variables; 100 is average, and every point is a percentage up or down from that); third is Wins Above Replacement – Google it, but the nut is just as the name says: how many wins does this player contribute relative to a league-average player in their place. I’ve calculated WAR per season so we can factor in both long-term (pre-age 35) and short-term (post-age 35) numbers.
Here are all 11 players (the 10 comparison cases plus Beltre) charted on all three measures, on both up-to-age 35 season and post-age 35 season (with data and graph – Beltre only factors into the first, so he won’t show up on the graphs) Note that none of these are small samples. Every player, Beltre included, has at least 15 seasons through their age 35 season. That’s a staggering show of young talent:
|Player||SLG to 35||SLG 35+||OPS+ to 35||OPS+ 35+||AVG WAR/YR to 35||AVG WAR/YR 35+|
Here are some graphs to make these easier to follow:
This tells us a great bit about power degradation, as you can see that while slugging still stays relatively close to pre-35 levels, you have outliers like Rice and Murphy who aged very quickly.
My most meaningful items here are the closest “contemporaries” to Beltre:
Ripken, Palmeiro, and Ramirez: in those three cases, the delta for slugging between pre-35 and post-35 is exactly .041. That’s a considerable drop, but is, as critically, almost identical to the overall average of a .043 drop. What that means is power degradation tends to stay consistent over periods from the late 1970s to the early 2000s.
The odds are then that Beltre’s post-35 power will mirror his pre-35 numbers for at least 2-3 years – those being the years any team trading for him would seek greatest value. Only three players saw dramatic falls, and each had injury issues and/or one-dimensional player challenges: Billy Williams and Dale Murphy, with the injury factor, and Jim Rice, who lived off his ability to pull the ball over the Green Monster. Absolutely NONE of these three presents a likely scenario for Beltre.
Like slugging, OPS shows the kinds of dips you’d expect, but again these are heavily weighted by the career drop-offs of Rice and Murphy. Despite being LOWER overall, however, the trend in WAR is telling. The overall trend lines mirror career averages at age 35 for most players. So while valuable averages like slugging and OPS will drop, if you factor in for the overall drop in value due to age, the WAR overall career trend will likely generally hold from 35 onward, if comparison players are to be believed.
Average WAR per season drops 2.62 for pre-35 vs post-35 seasons, but let’s look at Beltre on that scale, factoring out the average career span for all comparison players for him — that is, four seasons, or age 39. In fact, let’s take Beltre’s pre-35 four-year-span, and assume (as is logical, that it holds from 31-35 similarly to 36-39. I’ve also done a weighted average gain, with a %% improvement against the 2.62 AFTER age 35 for Beltre relative to the comparison – 2.62, after age 35. This is because I want to be conservative, because I think it’s entirely possible Beltre could stay up even higher.
Based on all of this, Beltre’s Seasonal War line from 31 through 40 (ten seasons) projects over the full span as follows:
The man will decline, but it’s the Price Is Right Alpine yodeler we’re seeing here, not a player doing a terminal velocity jump from middle age. Even by 40, he’s WELL above an average replacement player, and his trend is to generally hold in the 3-5 range until retirement.
Who would be interested?
The short answer on this questions is, almost everyone.
As much as anyone, Belte’s our version of Hershel Walker circa 1989; he’s tied up for the next season, which will take him through the end of his prime, and he shows no signs that age will slow him down meaningfully for at least 2-3 seasons thereafter. He just turned 36 and is arguably – and there aren’t many other proven contenders – the best player at his position. For ANY team needing a leader to lead them through the division, Division Series, LCS, and World Series, Adrian Beltre is likely THE most qualified available player. So where might he go?
When looking at two factors – current production and prospects – we find a few clear fits for Beltre. When we filter that through prospects appealing to Texas, things simplify. In my scenario, I’m betting on Joey Gallo being a serviceable MLB third baseman and thus no trade needing to replace Adrian.
The one team I’d LOVE to find interested in Beltre is Chicago. Their MLB-ready and minor league cache is amazing. But Kris Bryant is a prospect unlike anyone I’ve seen since Bryce Harper. He’s not the all-around player Harper was, but his pure power, plus his above average defense at third, makes him the next “anointed” superstar prospect. His failing would be a win for Vegas, to put it simply.
So where else should we look? Well, first, let’s look at some teams that, based on 2014, need a third baseman – factoring in roster changes (i.e., Josh Donaldson moving from Oakland to Toronto)
Fits and Landing Spots: the Cleveland Scenario
Cleveland is likely in the most talent-rich division in baseball, with at least four teams (Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and Kansas City) as reasonable pennant contenders. The Tribe has a decent young piece who could bridge the gap to Joey Gallo in Lonnie Chisenhall. Their lineup would immediately move from a nine-hole third baseman to a bat to protect Carlos Santana (who’s new album drops in June, I think.) They would suddenly boast one of the most dominant lineups in baseball to go with a defending Cy Young winner and five starters with sub-4 ERAs and four who strike out at least 8.8 per 9 innings. Beltre in June could be the piece that gives Cleveland the boost to win the division or Wild Card, and from there, anything’s possible (just ask the Royals.)
So what would it take?
Well, first, one of those arms is going to have to come over. Kluber and Carrasco aren’t going anywhere, even for Beltre, but Trevor Bauer has ace stuff, and with a pitching coach like Mike Maddux, he’d have a teacher with a reputation for improving control and efficiency in young arms. Trevor Bauer is able to dominate any start, as seen early this season, as well as in spring training.
Consider this dispatch, from Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer (I’m quoting verbatim because I can’t write as well as Terry, for the record…):
“Bauer wasn’t just throwing hard … harder … and some 97 mph worth of harder. Sitting in the stands not far from home plate, you could hear the WHOOSH of some of his pitches.
He was firing speed at the knees. And breaking pitches that zipped and dropped and caused the knees of right-handed hitters to buckle in a second of fear. He had a change up that darted away from left-handed hitters, who sometimes took frustrated swings at pitches in the dirt.
This was a powerhouse performance, because he was throwing strike after strike after strike.”
Bauer has that ability, day in and day out. His stock has dropped from a #9 prospect three years ago to the 70s or 80s on most lists by last year. That doesn’t dissuade me. Bauer was saddled with incredible expectations as a #3 pick for an Arizona team trying to make up for the loss of Randy Johnson to retirement when he came out of UCLA. Last season he put up a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio for Columbus, and having left UCLA early, he’s still only 23. His mechanics are patterned after The Freak, Tim Lincecum (still gives me 2010 flashbacks, I’m afraid), but he’s more well-built.
He spoke to Sports Illustrated just after being drafted about his habit of experimenting with pitches, as well as studying video and obsessing over mechanics.
“The more pitches that I have, that have different speeds and move differently, the more confusion it creates for the hitter. And if I throw all of them out of the same tunnel and make them look the same though 20 feet of flight … obviously, I’m going to be a lot tougher to hit.”
For a veteran, that’s a recipe for success. For a kid in his early 20s, changing organizations, it’s a recipe for not knowing one’s self.
So I have no qualms about betting on Bauer. I think he’s a lot closer to the top 10 prospect he was coming to Cleveland than the dozen rungs situation and dings and dents have put him at. By August, we may simply be hoping he’s been average enough to still be available. It’s not inconceivable to me that, while not being this year’s Casey Kluber, he could put up Rookie of the Year pitching stats.
From the minors, I’m going for bats, because that’s what Cleveland has and this Rangers system lacks. The top pull for me is not Francisco Lindor, because he’s been a top prospect without breaking free for a while, and Elvis Andrus’ stock has fallen just enough after last year that he may not be automatically headed to the Bronx anytime soon.
Rather, I’m pulling the Indian’s #2 pick from 2014, Bradley Zimmer, a 6’4, 185 lb outfielder from the University of San Francisco, who has put up solid minor league stats in short season and hi-A ball last and this season.
From Baseball America:
“Zimmer has the makings of a five-tool player. He has a calm approach at the plate and outstanding bat-to-ball skills. His power shows up more in the form of doubles for now, but he has the leverage in his swing to drive balls a long way when he gets his arms extended. He has a lanky, superbly athletic frame and catches eyes with his long strides on the bases and in center field. Scouts who watched Zimmer in college were mixed about whether he could stay in center, but the Indians like what they’ve seen. He’s able to cover plenty of ground and has good instincts, and his plus arm strength would fit in right field. Zimmer reached low Class A Lake County at the tail end of his pro debut and should be advanced enough to handle high Class A in his first full season. He has all the ingredients to move though the system quickly and be an impact player on both sides of the ball.”
His slash line (.304/.401/.464 at Mahoning Valley in 45 games) was complimented by two homers in three games for Low-A Lake County in their playoff series. And he has room to grow for power at only 185 pounds, despite a rangy 6’4’’ frame. As he hits his mid-20s, expect doubles to turn into homers, while his speedy long strides should keep him solid in the outfield. On draft day 2014, Keith Law’s scouting report noted:
“ (Zimmer) has one of the more intriguing offensive skill sets in the draft.”…“You don’t see many center fielders as tall as Zimmer, but there’s a chance he could play the position at the next level as he has above-average speed and gets good jumps in the outfield. Zimmer also has a strong, accurate arm.” …“If he can stick in the middle of the outfield, he’s a potential all-star.”
I don’t see this as a conflict for Leonys Martin, because if there’s any truth, it’s that Leonys hasn’t been tested in CF for a few seasons, and both he and Zimmer would team with the likes of Ryan Rua and Nomar Mazara to form a formidable outfield foursome of youthful, athletic ballplayers roaming the Arlington greens.
Next, I look to upgrade from Mitch Moreland with another Bradley: Bobby Bradley. If the name works for baseball as well as it does for tanks, let’s give it a shot.
From ESPN’s Keith Law:
“Bradley was a high school product from Mississippi who torched the Arizona Rookie League last summer, limited to first base, hitting for average and power despite some issues with breaking stuff. He’s got quick hands and plus raw power, and he’s fine defensively at first in the mold of Mets prospect Dominic Smith.”
Anytime I hear the terms “quick hands’ and “plus raw power” in the same prospect report, I’m intrigued.
From Baseball America:
“Bradley became the Rookie-level Arizona League’s first Triple Crown winner since 1989 by batting .361 with eight homers and 50 RBIs. He won league MVP honors and also led the league in slugging percentage (.652). Scouts typically view high school first basemen with heavy skepticism, but Bradley has the tools to overcome the bias. He has plenty of bat speed and impressive raw power from the left side. He knows the strike zone and hits with controlled aggression. His swing is balanced, and he keeps the bat in the hitting zone a long time, while showing a feel for taking balls the other way. Bradley improved his physique between his junior and senior years of high school, and the Indians believe he still can add more strength. He tried his hand at catching as a senior, but the Indians will develop him at first base, though he needs work there as well. He runs well for a first baseman, at least for now. Bradley could be an impact bat down the road, though he’ll need time, like all high school players.”
Think about that: the last time someone did what Bradley did in the AFL – win the Triple Crown – Bradley was seven years from BEING BORN. That’s what we call auspicious, but I’ll take it.
Finally is Yu Cheng Chang, INF. From Minorleaguebaseball:
“Age 19, hit .346/.420/.566 with 18 walks, 28 strikeouts in 159 at-bats in rookie ball, originally signed out of Taiwan. Very intriguing bat but I’d like to see at higher levels, also some questions about what infield spot he fits best at. You can make a case to rank him as high as 10. Could vault up the list next year.”
Beyond Cleveland, I think we have to get to the NL to find a fit.
Fits and Landing Spots: The Miami Scenario
Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich need a veteran bat to protect them, Miami will need a set-apart defensive third basemen with young pitchers and infielders. Adeiny Hechavarria is metrically a subpar shortstop, and Martin Prado is a solid veteran presence but not the kind of bat you need at a corner spot. Miami has shown a willingness to invest in veterans in their quest to justify Stanton’s faith in them and megalithic contract. Ichiro, Michael Morse, and Dan Haren, along with Prado, supplement a young team. But only Morse and Haren have impact-level ability any longer, and none comes close to Beltre. The final factor: no city needs the energetic presence of a Latin star, and no clubhouse the blend of intensity and irreverence, as much as Miami.
So there’s the fit, and if Miami is, as I suspect they will be, battling a fairly broad range of teams for a Wild Card spot, Beltre puts them over the top. Now, some might think, “Why Wild Card?” Simple: even with a slow start, I’m not nearly close to putting any team above Washington. But like Cleveland, once you get to the postseason, anything is possible. Especially with Jose Fernandez back before the dog days. He, Matt Latos, and Henderson Alvarez are not the equals of Stephen Strausberg, Max Scherzer, or Jordan Zimmerman. In fact, NO staff is, as those three would be staff aces on at least 2/3 of the teams in baseball, rather than battling for spots. But with veterans backing up the likes of Stanton, Yelich, and Dee Gordon, and keeping the clubhouse on the right level, pitchers can catch lightning. Washington lacks that veteran factor, although Matt Williams makes up for a lot of that gap.
So what does Beltre bring back? Well, assuming Fernandez is healthy, I think you can push for Jarred Cosart as the core.
He’s a top-end of the rotation starter, with both a mid-90s fastball and plus breaking ball. His consistency varies, but he’s right there with Henderson Alvarez in terms of numbers, if not true stuff. He’d slot into the top of the Ranger rotation until the return of Yu, and his leaving likely wouldn’t hurt a fairly deep mix of youth and veterans in the Marlins staff.
Now, because you’re talking about a pennant race, that might not be enough, so I’d consider adding Colby Lewis, who eats innings and brings post-season pedigree but won’t be a staff anchor by the time this team contends again. Adding Lewis gives the Rangers a better pick of Miami’s minor league system, which is mid-grade at best despite the great purge of 2013. They gave up a lot to get Dee Gordon and Cosart, and promote the likes of Christian Yelich at a time when he might still languish in the bushes for other teams.
My picks there are going to be arms, fully and entirely. One, because they’re deep in the Miami system, which increases your odds of getting a yes, and two, because young pitching, as we see with the Nationals, is a luxury that never gets too rich to carry.
My first pick is a safe lefty, Justin Nicolino. My favorite quote about him, from Keith Law, is that he’s “one of the highest-floor pitching prospects in baseball”. That means that while he’s not likely to be Clayton Kershaw, even a subpar outcome probably puts him as a mid-rotation guy. He has three big-league pitches now, and is efficient, throwing fewer pitches per inning than even Clayton Kershaw averaged last year (albeit in quite different situations). He’s had the distinction of having multiple seasons with a different league’s best pitch (his changeup, voted tops in the Midwest league in 2012 and the Southern League in 2014).
From Baseball America:
“He induces plenty of weak contact early in the count thanks to off-the-charts pitchability and a smooth, repeatable delivery. Nicolino has elite control, as evidenced by ranking third in the minors with 1.1 walks per nine. He incorporated a cutter in 2014 that he showed five or six times a game, but often he could log several innings using nothing but fastballs and changeups, precisely placed. He has to be fine, for only his changeup earns above-average grades. Nicolino’s 88-91 mph fastball can reach 93 but lacks life. His mid- to upper-70s curveball bounced back to average late in 2014 after he’d struggled with it early. Nicolino likely will advance to Triple-A New Orleans in 2015. His overall profile is rare–most scouts project him as a No. 4 starter–but with his plus command he could reach a higher ceiling.”
The note on his profile being “rare” is true, both for a top prospect and because, due to his changeup, control, and efficiency, he’s almost a certain mid-rotation starter, with a “high floor”, to quote Law.
He pitches to contact, which can be dangerous with young infielders, but with a veteran shortstop like Elvis backing him up, he should get a lot of groundouts to the left side by frustrated right-handed hitters in Arlington. His key ratios for his minor league career are all great:
Next I’m going after RHP Jose Urena, who is a bit different than Nicolino. His best talent is missing bats, having seen his K’s per 9 innings increase every season since 2012. He’s a minor league veteran, having been drafted at 17, so even at 23, he brings seven seasons of experience across seven stops, the latest being a call-up to Miami this season (similarly, Nicolino has five seasons and seven different stops since coming out of high school in Colorado.)
His control has improved to very mature levels even as strikeouts have gone up, with just under two walks per 9, giving him a 3.43 strikeout to walk ratio. Like Nicolino, Urena’s ratios are very solid:
The thing I like about both these guys is that they complement each other, have bodies to build on (both list at 6’4” and under 200 pounds), and have great ground ball ratios.
From Baseball America’s scouting report on Urena:
“Urena’s fastball/changeup combination is reminiscent of ex-Marlins reliever Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez). His plus fastball can sit at 94-95 mph, bumping 96, while his plus changeup is firm in the upper 80s with run and sink. Though his delivery is on the funky side, Urena repeats it and generally doesn’t have issues controlling the strike zone, though below-average command makes him more hittable than his stuff suggests. Once Urena started trusting his stuff, he was able to get over a slow start in 2014 (6.66 ERA in April). His breaking ball, a hard slider, remains below-average but has its moments, and it remains the biggest obstacle to him missing more bats.”
You have a good bit of Ugeth Urbina in his profile, in that he wants to start but has lights-out potential as a reliever. The Rangers, having gone through the perils of that roller-coaster with both Ugeth and Neftali Feliz, may be the best organization he could possibly join, as they’ll pick a side and stick with it now.
Finally, I’m taking one position player, whom I think could spell (and potentially replace) Leonys Martin or Ryan Rau in the outfield. Isael Soto is a 6-foot, 200 pound 19-year-old who, as the Baseball America scouting report below shows, draws some great comparisons and brings great tools for a raw, young player. For a “last pick” in a trade, tools are a great way to go, and this balances a bit of a different approach than we saw in the Indians trade scenario. As Law says, creatively as usual, “Soto is the sleeper to be a sleeper someday, with a 70 arm and a chance for 70 raw power in right field…”
From Baseball America:
“Soto is raw, but he opened eyes in the GCL, putting up better numbers at a younger age than Marcell Ozuna did at the same level. He earns some comparisons with Ozuna, and other comps to a lefthanded version of Raul Mondesi, thanks to his stocky body and plus, right-field arm. The ball sounds different coming off Soto’s bat, and he’s aggressive, at times to a fault, as are many young sluggers. He also has short, stocky arms that contribute to his short swing and direct path to the ball. He makes fair contact and consistently gets to his power in games, driving the ball to all fields. He’s an average runner now, and the Marlins may give him some time in center field in 2015.”
The Undeniable Truth
Which trade do I like the best?
In my mind, I call it a draw.
Cleveland vs Miami is pretty black and white, beyond the big league level of Bauer and Cosart. Bats vs. arms. Fewer but higher ceiling players vs. quantity that portents quality.
In my heart, I hate both scenarios.
If the worst happens, and Beltre is traded, it will be the second most-devastating player move in the history of this franchise, matched only by Pudge being allowed to leave as a free agent after 2002. His energy, attitude, performance, and, above all, “Fun to Watch” factor make him the icon of this Rangers team. For a player who may only stay five seasons, he’s an undeniable icon and future Hall of Famer, at least in Arlington, and should be in Cooperstown.
I doubt any player will ever be as loved, as soon, as sincerely, for as long as Beltre will be. He has played many places, but he is of Texas. Even if the economics and competitive drives of baseball lead to his early departure, never forget the Beltre of your mind’s eye. That, more than any trade return, is the greatest thing he’ll ever give back to Texas and Rangers fans everywhere.