Mailbag: Josh Hamilton vs Carlos Beltran

Reader Neil S. asks:

“I have a keeper league dilemma involving chronically injured players. My offense is possibly the weakest in my head-to-head keeper league, and I was planning on keeping [Carlos] Beltran until the recent surgery (we don’t have to announce our eight keepers until early March). But Josh Hamilton is also an option for me. So my question is – is it worth taking a shot on Hamilton bouncing back, or should I take Beltran’s more reliable production numbers, even if he’s going to miss a significant chunk of the year?

I’m keeping HanRam, Texeira, and Bay (though, of course, I’m worried about the hit his numbers will take at the new field), and four of the following five pitchers: Lester, Johnson, Hamels, Cain, and Hanson. Clearly, I’m much better positioned to go forward with my pitchers than I am with my hitters.”

Neil obviously has some pretty sweet offense going on with his team already, and he’s playing in a tradition 5×5 Head-to-Head League. Hanley Ramirez, Mark Teixeira, and Jason Bay will provide some good pop, RBI totals and both Ramirez and Teixeira should hit for good batting averages. In mid-December, Fangraphs fantasy fiend Eno Sarris ranked the center-fielders and had both Beltran and Hamilton within two slots of each other. However, it was announced roughly one month later that Beltran (ADP: 89.58) had undergone another surgery on his troublesome knee, which puts his Opening Day status in doubt.

The outfielder struggled with the knee in ’09 and most of his numbers were down as a result. His batting average was up to .325, but it was aided by a .353 BABIP. At the age of 33, Beltran is no spring chicken so you have to be worried about his mobility when he returns. Previously, a lot of his value in fantasy baseball was wrapped up in his ability to provide power and speed. You have to expect that Beltran will not provide 20+ steals this year, and his ability to score 100 runs could be hampered by reduced speed, as well as a poor lineup around him. If healthy, though, he should still be able to provide 25+ homers and 100 RBI (which he’s done seven of the last nine seasons). The lineup around him, again, could hurt his ability to drive in runs, but improved seasons by Jose Reyes and David Wright could certainly help. With all that said, there are a lot of things that have to go right for Beltran to really put up impactful numbers in 2010.

Hamilton (ADP: 51) also struggled through injury problems in 2010 and his career has been littered with stays on the disabled list. The 28-year-old outfielder has received a lot of press but the truth is that he’s produced just one full outstanding offensive season in his career (2008: .385 wOBA). Unlike Beltran, his injury (pinched nerve in his back) was fixed with rest rather than surgery. In ’09, he hit a disappointing .268/.315/.426 in 336 at-bats. His line-drive rate remained strong at 21% but it’s clear that he had trouble getting around on the good fastballs on a consistent basis as his Pitch Type Value (per 100) dropped from 2.64 to 1.36. Hamilton plays in a better offensive park than Beltan, and the Ranger also has more lineup protection with the likes of Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, Nelson Cruz, and Chris Davis. With speedster Julio Borbon likely playing everyday in 2010 (along with a second-year Elvis Andrus), Hamilton should have plenty of swift-footed players to drive in.

With everything said above, I am going to advocate for Hamilton as your keeper choice. He’s younger by five years so he’s a better long-term bet. Hamilton is also expected to be 100% healthy for the start of the year, which makes him a better short-term option (as witnessed by their current ADPs). Now, I am worried about his chronic health woes (as well as his well-documented off-field issues) but you have enough “insurance” with Ramirez, Teixeira, and Bay that you can take the risk. Beltran has a more proven track record, but I think we’re going to see a serious decline in his speed numbers.

*Average Draft Position (ADP) ranking provided by Mock Draft Central.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects, depth charts and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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The one confounding variable that would really scare me about Hamilton was that there was some speculation about that his past crack-cocaine abuse has taken a very terrible toll on his body, so he may be injury prone for the rest of his career however short that may be

With that being said, on that alone, I think that Beltran may actually be lower risk to get instead of Hamilton. Otherwise in an ideal sense, I pretty much agree with everything in the article.