Seven years ago, Carlos Beltran was the must-have item on baseball’s midsummer trade market. If Twitter had been around in those days — how did we ever generate a good rumor without it? — the switch-hitting Kansas City Royals center fielder would have been a nationwide trending topic, every day, for about all of June.
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Instead, it’s all there in the newspaper archives: The Padres were the odds-on favorite to land Beltran, if only they would part with Sean Burroughs, who was absolutely going to become a 10-time All-Star third baseman. The Red Sox were involved, and so were the Yankees, because some things never change. The A’s and Angels and Dodgers and Phillies were supposedly making bids.
The Astros were scarcely mentioned. Naturally, they struck the deal.
Much has changed since. Beltran signed a seven-year, $119 million contract with the Mets, and his time in New York has been, well, complicated. There was the called third strike in October 2006, after what had been an MVP-type season. There was surgery on his arthritic right knee. There was public criticism from team management — and then more public criticism from team management.
“We have gone through a lot of things,” Beltran said Wednesday before a walk-off loss to the Brewers. “Ups and downs, injuries here and there, controversies, a little bit of everything.”
“I could write a book.”
And yet here he is, a hot commodity once more, at 34 years young.
Is Beltran the big-name hitter out there? Not quite. He might not be the most coveted position player on his own team. That title probably belongs to the scintillating Jose Reyes.
But if you are searching for an outfielder or power hitter, Beltran must be at or near the top of your list. Depending on how many teams decide to sell — and, right now, it appears the supply will be short — Beltran could be the top slugger to change teams before the whistle blows on July 31.
So, go ahead: Buy shares in the hype surrounding Beltran. The evidence is right there for you — the league-leading 20 doubles, the team-best nine home runs and 35 RBI, the .873 OPS. And he’s doing it all while wearing a brace on his right knee and taking on a new position, right field.
“This guy is a star,” Mets manager Terry Collins said.
Is “this guy” an injury risk, too? Sure. But that doesn’t make Beltran unique among corner outfielders of his age. Baseball-Reference.com tells us that Andre Dawson is the second-most similar batter to Beltran through age 33. The Hawk’s knees were worse than Beltran’s, and he drove in 90 runs during the season in which he turned 38.
Really, unless the Dodgers make Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier available, which veteran outfielders (from losing teams) would you take over Beltran for the remainder of this season?
Jason Kubel (Twins) is a proven run producer, but he’s on the disabled list. Hunter Pence (Astros) has a high price tag and negligible pennant-race experience. Kosuke Fukudome (Cubs) has a history of fast starts and poor Septembers.
Another consideration in Beltran’s favor: He believes he could return to center if needed. “Right now, yeah,” he said Wednesday. “I feel good. I’m healthy.” As for serving as a designated hitter, one role some have envisioned for him? “For a day, I’d take it,” he said. “It’s kind of like a half-day off. But I prefer to be in the outfield and play the game.”
There is every reason to believe Beltran will be the first notable Met dealt this season. He is eligible for free agency after this year. There is no fanciful talk of keeping him (as with Reyes) or an expensive vesting option (as with Francisco Rodriguez) to complicate matters. It’s pretty straightforward: Which team can offer the best prospects and/or kick in the most money?
Let’s not forget that Beltran, by virtue of his no-trade clause, has the ultimate say-so as to his whereabouts on Aug. 1. He is represented by a rather well-known California sports agent named Scott Boras. The Barrister of the Beach could complicate the Mets’ trade efforts by insisting that the parties involved sweeten the deal by promising more money to his client.
But let’s not forget how Beltran came to play for the Mets in the first place: He went from the Royals, who were going nowhere, to the Astros, who ensured that his postseason exploits were broadcast to the world. Had he stayed in Kansas City and missed the playoffs in ’04, he wouldn’t have signed a $119 million contract.
October heroes get paid — Fred Wilpon knows this — and it’s foolish to think Beltran would pass up another free infomercial if the Mets remain in fourth place.
And, really, that is part of Beltran’s appeal: He’s done this before. He changed leagues at midseason. He walked into a clubhouse after a GM sold the farm to get him. In 22 postseason games, he has a .366 career batting average, with 11 home runs.
“When you have experience in life, and you went through something before, and you’re about to go through it again, it helps you,” he said when asked about the inevitable torrent of trade rumors. “You understand it’s a business. The team’s going to do what’s best for the team. All I need to control is what I do on the field and try to help this team win ballgames any way I can. I’m not really worried about what’s going to happen.”
Beltran was 27 the first (and only) time he was traded, and he credits Allard Baird, then the Royals’ general manager and now a Red Sox executive, for helping him stay focused back then.
“Allard sat down with me and said, ‘You know what, Carlos? Don’t listen to the rumors. You’re going to hear it from me first,’ ” Beltran recalled. “That really took some weight off me. I said, ‘I’m just going to play the game. I trust him.’ So, I just concentrated on playing. It would have been different if he hadn’t told me that. I would have come to the ballpark thinking, ‘Maybe today will be the day.’ He really took some weight off me by saying that.
“When the time came, he called and said, ‘Carlos, we’re about to trade you. We’re talking with Houston, but this thing could fall (apart). I’ll call you back in two hours.’ He called me back in two hours and said, ‘You got traded to Houston. We wish you the best.’ That was so professional. It was great, the way he handled it. . . . We (still) keep in touch. In this business, you want to deal with people who are professional. He’s one of those guys.”
Beltran said he has yet to have similar conversations with Mets officials this season. He attributed that to the no-trade clause — which, by the way, he says he is willing to waive for teams with a chance to win a championship this season.
“When the time comes, I’ll deal with the situation,” Beltran said. His tone was matter-of-fact, suggesting that he’s been through this before — which, of course, he has.