Beltre with Jon Daniels on the day he was signed with the Rangers
The following is the first of possibly many more articles by Lance Gurewitz for The Biz of Baseball. -- Maury Brown
Every so often, an available or recently acquired player gains the label of “division changer” from the media. It has always seemed to me that the idea that a given player, no matter how talented, is a “division changer” is little more than rhetoric that is music to an agent’s ears. After all, a player without the potential to change a division to some extent—that is, make his team more likely to win said division—would not be one that commands a multi-year deal as a free agent or a bounty of prospects in a trade. Thus, while the term may be apt to some degree, it also seems somewhat redundant.
There is one situation, however, where the distinction may take on some additional meaning, and it just so happens to be a situation in which Adrian Beltre—the most recent player to seemingly be labeled a division changer—had found himself this winter. The scenario in question occurs when more than one team in a single division targets the same player. Before Beltre agreed to join the reigning American League champion Rangers, the up-and-coming Athletics and now quickly fading Angels seemed to be close enough to the Rangers that a big year from Beltre could truly shift the balance of power in favor of his new team. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what the five-year, $80-million (plus a vesting option) Beltre signing means for each of these teams.
The simplest place to start is in Oakland, where Beltre clearly had no desire to play, rebuffing the A’s for the second consecutive offseason despite a bid that was most recently reported to have reached six years and $76 million. As big contracts go, this one may have been palatable for the A’s, but it likely would have maxed out their payroll after arbitration raises to Josh Willingham, Kevin Kouzmanoff (though he likely would have been traded), and Conor Jackson. Beltre is a clear upgrade over Kouzmanoff at third base, but Fangraphs has the latter consistently providing over 2.5 WAR for the last five years, making Beltre somewhat more of a luxury than a dire need. Between that and the similarity in dimensions between Oakland’s Network Associates Coliseum and Seattle’s Safeco Field—where Beltre produced wOBAs of .332, .333, .302, and .297 as a Mariner—I’m inclined to think that the A’s will be content with missing out on Beltre and enjoy their financial flexibility when their talented young core hits arbitration.
Missing out on a third baseman of Beltre’s caliber is a much bigger problem, however, for a team whose total production from the position was below replacement level. Unwillingness to offer $142 million to Carl Crawford was understandable, as the contract is risky and the Angels outfield, while not stellar, is certainly competent. Replacing an average or quality player with a star entails some attentive cost-benefit analysis, as we will see below. However, when a team gets literally zero production from a position and a premium free agent is available at that position, that’s the time to spend. The Angels reportedly offered $70 million over five years, which may have been a nice starting point for negotiations, but Beltre was such painfully obvious fit for the Angels. They could have easily matched the Rangers’ offer and looked much more sensible than they did when they dominated the market by offering Torii Hunter $90 million for five years back in 2007. Years five and six of the Beltre contract may not be bargains, but for years one and two of his deal with the Rangers, the Angels are looking less and less like contenders.
Finally, now that we’ve examined the impact Beltre has on the teams that didn’t sign him, let’s take a look at the one that actually did. First, we can get an idea of what kind of production the Rangers expect from Beltre (measured in WAR), making sure to account for the growth of MLB revenues and salaries. Based on articles by both Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and J.C. Bradbury of Sabernomics, I’ve concluded that a realistic but unaggressive projection of revenue growth is 5% per year. Using this and the 2010 value of one fWAR, which is $5 million, we can estimate how many wins above replacement value Beltre should generate to justify his contract. (I’ll assume the sixth year is picked up.)
2011: $14 million, $5.25MM/fWAR = 2.7 fWAR
2012: $15 million, $5.5MM/fWAR = 2.7 fWAR
2013: $16 million, $5.8MM/fWAR = 2.8 fWAR
2014: $17 million, $6.1MM/fWAR = 2.8 fWAR
2015: $18 million, $6.4MM/fWAR = 2.8 fWAR
2016: $16 million, $6.7MM/fWAR = 2.4 fWAR
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Clearly, if the salary growth projection holds, the Rangers are very far from paying Beltre to be a superstar. Beltre has been reliable for this kind of production throughout his career. With a glove that is nothing short of stellar by all accounts, Beltre exhibits volatility only with his bat. However, with his 2010 performance and the way his offensive numbers seem so significantly damaged by Safeco Field (away from which he was still an above average hitter as a Mariner according to wRC+), he appears more than capable of exceeding his contract value, even if his production is somewhat front-loaded.
However, while that analysis is suitable for Beltre’s contract in a vacuum, it is important to analyze the net impact of signing Beltre, which includes Michael Young’s position change and the near certainty that Vladimir Guerrero will not return to the Rangers. To analyze transactions like this, I find it helpful to list the qualitative gains and losses before trying to assign them more tangible values. For example, Beltre’s defense is a clear upgrade over Young’s, Beltre’s contract is more expensive than the one Vlad (or a similar DH) will sign, and the difference between Beltre and Guerrero’s offensive values can go either way, though the edge probably goes to Beltre. In other words, the Rangers sacrificed future financial flexibility, took on some long-term risk, and surrendered their first-round draft pick. In exchange, they acquired an elite defender who should upgrade their offense, indirectly adds flexibility to their bench, and could have otherwise been a significant upgrade for a division rival. Ultimately, then, the question is whether those tradeoffs have a net benefit to the Rangers that is worth what they paid to acquire Beltre.
It seems to me that the benefits here outweigh the costs for the Rangers. Based on UZR of the past several years, the upgrade from Young to Beltre at the hot corner should easily produce between one and two extra WAR. It’s doubtful that Beltre will regress to the type of hitter he was in Safeco Field, meaning that Texas’ offense should at least break even and has potential for significant improvement based on Beltre’s 2010 performance. Last year, the offensive RAR difference between the two was 15, making another half-win based on offense very realistic. This brings us to a reasonable estimate of a 1.5-WAR ($7.9 million) increase by signing Beltre. The fact that Beltre’s most notable suitors were division rivals, as well as the Rangers’ place on the marginal win curve—where every game counts significantly for their playoff hopes—add value that is a bit harder to quantify but is certainly significant. I’ll treat the increase as an extra half-win, or $2.6 million, although it is almost certainly much more. Add in the fact that the Rangers are using Beltre to replace a player who cost $6.5 million last season and subtract the value of the lost draft pick (also, coincidentally, $6.5 million), and we can very conservatively conclude that the Rangers added at least $10 million in value to their 2011 team.
Is it possible that the Rangers overpaid, then? Indeed, it may turn out that the Rangers would have been better off with smaller financial commitments to less notable—but perhaps underrated—names. Nevertheless, there are many opportunities for Beltre’s value to exceed this approximation. These include his offensive upside in a hitters’ park, increased value of the Rangers’ marginal win, his absence on the rosters of division rivals, greater revenue/salary growth than projected here, and positive signaling to fans. With all of those potential benefits, I’m inclined to believe the Rangers have a chance to be much more than merely content with their newest acquisition. When Texas is listed as the AL West favorite again this season, with the A’s just a bit short of star power and the Angels looking irrelevant after a very questionable offseason, Adrian Beltre will be no small part of the reason why.