As many of us probably remember from the 2005 offseason, Carlos Beltran really wanted to be a Yankee. Even though the Yankees ultimately passed on Beltran, he reportedly offered to sign with the Yankees for less than the 7-year $119 million contract he ultimately received from the Mets. Beltran’s tenure with the Mets was a mixture of ups (MVP caliber seasons in 2006 and 2008) and downs (significant time lost to injury in 2009 and 2010), and I have always wondered how having Beltran in centerfield instead of an aging Bernie Williams, Johnny Damon, or mediocre Melky Cabrera during the mid-2000′s would have affected the Yankees’ outcomes in that era.
Fast forward to the 2011 offseason, where a similar situation presented itself. Beltran, coming off a 4.7 fWAR season for the Mets and Giants, was offered a 2-year $26 million contract by the Cardinals. This is a pretty reasonable deal for a 34-year old player of Beltran’s caliber. Given Beltran’s injury history, the short duration of the contract and relatively modest average annual value make sense.
Per Jon Heyman, after receiving this offer from St. Louis, Beltran approached the Yankees and offered to take a similar deal to play in pinstripes, even though the Yankees were not strongly pursuing him. The Yankees understandably declined, considering they have a full outfield and a DH position likely occupied by their hitting prospect, Jesus Montero. Given the current roster composition, passing on Beltran makes sense. However, I could see a legitimate argument for Beltran in pinstripes being a good move, particularly given the Yankees’ alleged goal of getting their payroll below $189 million for 2014.
If the Yankees signed Beltran, he presumably would have fit best in right field, the position currently occupied by Nick Swisher and his $12 million contract for 2012. Swisher carries significantly less injury risk than Beltran, though when healthy, Beltran’s performance has been superior. While Beltran may not be the 7+ fWAR player that he was in his prime, his 2011 fWAR of 4.7 is higher than Swisher’s best season, 4.1 fWAR in 2010. Sticking with Swisher would give the Yankees greater certainty in 2012, though if they lucked out with Beltran’s health, it is conceivable that his production would be better than Swisher’s. For me, the likely value is a wash, with Beltran’s better production balanced by his higher risk.
As for contracts, it would appear that having Swisher under contract for 1 year would be better than signing Beltran for 2, but given the looming 2014 situation, I am not so sure. Beltran might be a better option in terms of giving the Yankees flexibility for 2014. If the Yankees gave Beltran a 2-year deal, they would not be committing any money to a rightfielder in 2014, and would have a good option there through 2013. With Swisher, the Yankees have him under control for only 1 season, and therefore will either have to resign Swisher to a contract that will keep him through 2014, or find a replacement (on the FA market or trade, which will also commit them to a contract through 2014). If they were focused on austerity, then it would likely be difficult to find a good option for 2013 if resigning Swisher was too expensive for 2014.
If the Yankees are serious about the “austerity plan”, then one might expect them to look internally to fill the third outfield position in 2014 (assuming Granderson and Gardner are still on the team). By going 2 years on Beltran instead of 1 year on Swisher, the Yankees give the farm an extra year to produce a viable replacement such as Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, Ravel Santana, or Jorge Soler (if he signs). All of these guys would likely be too far away to be viable options to replace Swisher if he walks in 2013, but one of them might be ready come 2014.
There are certainly a lot of unknowns here when I am making this assessment. One important one is what the Yankees would do with Swisher if Beltran signed with them. Assuming Swisher’s option had already been picked up, the question would be what the Yankees would get for Swisher in a deal. Getting something of value for Swisher would strengthen the argument for Beltran, though it is unclear that Swisher alone would be enough to get a clear upgrade for the rotation.
Another area of uncertainty is Yoenis Cespedes. The Yankees are reportedly interested, and if they sign him, he could be ready to step into right field as soon as 2012 (but in all likelihood, by 2013). Signing Cespedes would presumably commit the Yankees to 3 outfielders in 2014, so keeping Swisher on a 1-year deal would make sense in this scenario.
This all depends on whether the Yankees are truly pursuing an “austerity plan” for 2014. If not, then having an expensive rightfielder under contract for 2014 is not a major problem, so they would be open to keeping Swisher past 2012 (or signing/trading for a replacement). However, if they are planning on going down that path, then Beltran may give them a little more flexility for 2014 without sacrificing the ability to compete in 2013. It certainly would have been a risky move to entrust right field to a guy with as many recent injuries as Beltran, but given the potential financial restrictions in 2014 and Beltran’s talent, it could have been worth the risk.
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