A Beltran return to St. Louis ties directly to playing time

ST. LOUIS — Carlos Beltran just wants to play.

Whether it’s April or September. Whether he’s hitting or slumping. Whether his team is winning or losing. Every game he’s fit, the 36-year-old right fielder wants to be in the lineup.

“When you’re healthy and you’re getting a day off, to me, it doesn’t help,” Beltran said before a game last weekend. “Unless I’m not capable of taking the field, or if I’m limited, I like to be out there.”

While his approach hardly is unusual, it will be worth remembering when it’s time for him to sign his next contract. As badly as Beltran wants to play in a World Series, playing time will be an even more important consideration.

Often this season when Beltran has been given a day off — or, from his perspective, ordered to take one — the media have checked to make sure he’s healthy. Beltran rarely has allowed these occasions to pass without saying he’d rather be on the field. He’s too good a teammate to make a stink, but he’ll still let you know he’d prefer to be playing

“I feel like I can contribute more when I’m on the field than when I’m sitting on the bench,” he says. “Unless I’m not capable of taking the field, or I’m limited, I like to be out there.”

Well, who doesn’t? Especially in a pennant race. But there’s a difference between Beltran and the rest of the Cardinals.

Beltran, in the last year of a two-year, $26 million contract, has only a few years left in a career that could land him in the Hall of Fame. Baseball-Reference.com likens his numbers to those of Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield at this stage of his career. At different times this season, Beltran has said he doesn’t know how much longer he wants to play, that he wants to play “two or three more years” or he intends to play “three or four more years.” The exact duration will depend in large part on how he is faring.

“I want to play this game until I feel I can’t contribute and produce at a level I’m happy,” he says. “And the team I am playing with is also happy.”

Beltran would cherish making Cooperstown as much as anyone, but building a Hall of Fame resume isn’t the main reason he wants to play every day. Don’t let his coolness and grace fool you. He has as much fire as anyone, not to mention a competitive stubbornness you can see whenever talk turns to his playing time.

Manager Mike Matheny has made a point of giving Beltran more days off this season with the hopes of avoiding a second-half slump like he endured last year. Matheny’s plan seemed to pay off when Beltran hit .366 in August, nearly 100 points higher than in August 2012. Beltran, however, refuses to acknowledge the added rest has helped.

“I don’t think that it makes any difference,” he says.

Do you think the rest has allowed you to stay healthier this September?

“I feel the same,” he says.

Beltran does allow his knees have held up better this year but, he says, not because he’s playing in fewer games. He credits more diligence in the weight room, including every-other-day sessions with his lower body.     

“Last year, it was on and off,” he says. “This year has been more consistent.”

Other than to say the club will face a difficult decision, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak hasn’t addressed Beltran’s prospects of returning to St. Louis. He shouldn’t, either, until seeing how the season plays out.

But that doesn’t stop one from speculating. The way I see it, the Cardinals can’t lose by making Beltran a qualifying offer, which figures to be around $14 million for one year. If he were to decline, the Cardinals would reap a valuable draft pick. If he were to accept, the Cardinals might have to overpay slightly — he’s making $13 million this season — but for only one year. They would not have to worry about negotiating a multiyear contract.

With Matt Adams ready for full-time duty and top prospect Oscar Taveras no more than a year away despite his lost season, finding enough at-bats to keep Beltran satisfied in 2014 could be difficult. Finding enough for two years would be an even greater long shot.

While Beltran has played well enough to warrant another multiyear contract, scoring one could be tough because of draft-pick compensation rules. Look at what happened to Kyle Lohse, who didn’t find a job until late in spring training even though he was coming off a banner season.

If the Cardinals made a qualifying offer, Beltran could decline and test the free-agent market. If he then was unable to find a deal to his liking, he could engage the Cardinals. At that point, though, he would have lost negotiating leverage.

Money, of course, will play a factor in his decision, but not so much in terms of getting top dollar. From what he is offered, Beltran will be able to gauge how much a team is looking to play him.

As he puts it, “If the team is willing to make the commitment to sign me, the way I’m playing right now, I want to play every day.”

He feels he can play the outfield on a daily basis, too, though he isn’t likely to rule out a situation where he also would DH.

Mainly, he will be looking for a place to play every day. Though he often says he would like to stay with the Cardinals, it’s hard to see St. Louis being such a place.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.