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The Strangely Thin Beltran Market

There has been plenty to discuss this offseason, with the Angels, Marlins and Phillies making big splashes and rumors sprouting up left and right every single day. However, Carlos Beltran‘s name has barely been mentioned to the point that one could wonder if teams forgot he was available.

According to our nifty custom free agent leaderboard, Beltran was the fourth most productive non-pitcher on the market. At 4.7 WAR, only Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols performed better last season. Based strictly on offensive value, Beltran’s .389 wOBA and 151 wRC+ ranked third to just Fielder (.408) and David Ortiz (.405). He lost some points for below average fielding but ran the bases at an above average clip. Overall, last season marked a return to form that should have set Beltran up nicely for the offseason, especially considering he was the cream of the available outfield crop.

He can’t regularly play centerfield anymore, but this isn’t the 2009 offseason, when a glut of corner outfielders hit the market at the same time. Aside from Beltran, prominent outfield options include(d) Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Coco Crisp. DeJesus signed a modest two-year, $10 million deal but the others remain free agents. Even Grady Sizemore was signed to a one-year deal potentially worth $9 million if he meets incentives. Willingham and Cuddyer will probably end up signing deals with average annual values in the $7-$10 million range. Beltran’s desired salary is largely unknown but it’s hard to fathom him requesting much more than Willingham and Cuddyer, despite superior production.

Beltran will end up signing for something like one year and $12 million, or two years and $20 million, both of which could include playing time incentives. This is well below what 4-5 WAR often costs on the market, but a low enough salary that teams aren’t scared off by his injury history. The lack of interest in Beltran is strange, but likely means some team will get a very productive player at a relative bargain.

Beltran projects more favorably than his free agent outfield contemporaries, but he has enough going against his case to prevent him from obtaining his true value. Teams will shy away from the intersection of his age and prior ailments and wonder if 2011 was a fluke. He only played 145 games in 2009-10, but his productivity is often lost in that discussion. Injuries obviously affected his value, but he hit .295/.384/.470 in 612 PAs.

Consider his 2009-10 as one full season, and it was very Beltran-esque at this stage: 3.8 WAR, that impressive slash line, and a .370 wOBA. If the injuries are in his rear-view mirror, and playing 142 games last season goes a long way towards suggesting his health is improved, several teams could benefit greatly from his presence in the lineup. He isn’t the 6-7 WAR player of old, capable of roaming centerfield effortlessly, but there is some value to be gained in signing a great hitter in a corner outfield spot for much less than his projected WAR is worth on the market.

Who are these teams, you ask?

– The Cardinals were mentioned as a possible destination yesterday, with $22 million freed up after losing Pujols, and an obvious need with Allen Craig‘s knee surgery. Craig could miss 1-2 months in 2012, and even when he returns, could benefit from occasional time off. Beltran would start the season in right field, but could spell Jon Jay in center every now and then as well. A foursome of Holliday, Beltran, Craig and Jay would help make up for some of the lost Pujolsian production.

– The Nationals may really shift Jayson Werth to center if they cannot acquire a legitimate centerfielder. Manager Davey Johnson intends to give Bryce Harper a shot at earning the right field role in spring training, but he’ll presumably start the season in the minors. Roger Bernadina is a nice player with potential, but the Nationals are a sleeper wild card contender, and adding Beltran could change the complexion of that lineup.

– Several teams have been linked to Martin Prado this offseason, and if the Braves end up trading him, they have an opening in left field that Beltran would be perfect for. The Braves have also been connected to Willingham. They are in a tough spot, because Chipper Jones can’t be relied upon to stay healthy, and Prado would take over at third when Jones goes down. However, it’s going to be tough to sell Beltran on a role that could end up being part-time if everything breaks right, health-wise.

– The Red Sox have Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, but may find an affordable Beltran more desirable than Josh Reddick for a full season.

– The Tigers have Austin Jackson, and used both Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young, but Beltran represents an upgrade over both.

– The Mariners have Ichiro Suzuki, but no other outfielder played more than 92 games last season.

– Then we have the Cubs, who have Marlon Byrd and DeJesus, but who are actively shopping Alfonso Soriano. If Soriano’s salary is mostly eaten, and he is eventually moved, Beltran makes a lot of sense for Theo Epstein’s new club, especially if both Pujols and Fielder end up leaving the division.

One of these teams — or another team where less of a reasonable fit exists — is going to sign Beltran, and for a reasonable number of years and dollars. The lack of interest is strange right now, but not every deal gets made over the Winter Meetings. It’s just curious since Beltran might end up being the best value-sign of the offseason.