Carlos Beltran, at age 34, is having an exceptionally sensational 2011 season. The switch-hitter has posted a .290/.387/.524 line with 15 homeruns, (league-leading) 30 doubles, 2 triples, 61 RBI, 56 runs, and 3 stolen bases to-date. Unlike other “elderly” hitters, Beltran can still play the field, as proven by his respectable 0.2 UZR/150. But this all really shouldn’t surprise people. From 2001 to 2008, Beltran was one of the most elite outfielders in baseball. He owned a .282/.363/.513 line with 234 homeruns, 828 RBI, 862 runs, and 232 stolen bases. Despite his recent injury history, Beltran collected an averaged of 665 plate appearances per season during that span. The hitter also enjoyed a particularly successful 2006 season, where he posted a .275/.388/.594 line with 41 homeruns, 116 RBI, 127 runs, and 18 stolen bases. It was good enough to finish fourth in the MVP voting.
However, a knee injury he endured early in 2009 only worsened by season’s end, leading to a controversial surgery, which Mets ownership initially claimed was “not approved.” His injury-plagued 2009 and 2010 didn’t bode well for his 2011 production. But Mets fans had forgotten what a healthy Carlos Beltran was capable of. While all eyes have been focused on what the Mets will receive around the deadline for Beltran’s services, one has to wonder–assuming the slugger were to continue his torrid season–what kind of contract he’ll be in-line for come free agency. Below are five veteran players, who like Beltran, enjoyed reconnaissance seasons prior to free agency.
Player: Hideki Matsui
Free Agency Year: Pre-2010
Free Agency Age: 35
New Salary: $6,000,000
In his first three seasons (2003 to 2005) for the New York Yankees, “Godzilla” was the definition of health. The Japanese import played an average of 162 games, owning a .297/.370/.484 line with as many as 31 homeruns in a single-season. However, his fourth year in the Major Leagues was the start of his long-lasting injury problems. In 2006, Matsui missed most of May as well as June, July, August, and part of September due to a nagging wrist injury. The former Yoiuri Giants standout was at mostly full-health in 2007, but then experienced a knee injury in 2008, crippling him for most of the season, and prompting the Yankees to use the oft-outfielder as a pure designated hitter in 2009.
Despite various outstanding seasons in pinstripes, the Yankees let their outfielder go to free agency. At age 35, and with two major injuries under his belt, Matsui was unable to garner more than a one-year deal on the open market. Godzilla signed a one-year pact with the Los Angeles Angels for $6 million, where he posted a respectable .274/.361/.459 in 554 plate appearances. Facing a similar free agent market the following season, Matsui signed with the Angels’ divisional rival, the Oakland Athletics, for $4.25 million. While Matsui has stayed healthy this season for the A’s, his offensive prowess has deteriorated to the tune of a .223/.302/.348 line.
Beltran Angle: Carlos Beltran has more Major League experience than Matsui, but similar to Godzilla, the two are up there in age, and have experienced major injuries. Beltran can at least still play the field, but prospective teams will/should be skeptical how long his defense will be an asset.
Player: Lance Berkman
Free Agency Year: Pre-2011
Free Agency Age: 35
New Salary: $8,000,000
Prior to 2010, it appeared as though Lance Berkman would be an Astros lifer. The former first round pick had been with the franchise since 1997, and became one of their best hitters in history. In fact, from 2001 to 2009, Berkman averaged a .301/.415/.558 line with 32 homeruns, 107 RBI, 98 runs, and 8 stolen bases per season. Some of his more impressive stats include a 55-doubles/1.051 OPS season in 2001, a 128 RBI season in 2002, a 45 homerun/.621 SLG season in 2006, and a 18 stolen bases season in 2008. Needless to say, Lance Berkman had countless terrific seasons under his belt as a Houston Astro.
However, in 2010, the Houston Astros decided to go in a different direction. At age 34, Berkman saw his usually high batting average and slugging percentage drop to unfamiliar levels (.245 and .436, respectively). Given that the Astros hadn’t been real competitors since 2006, they decided to “back-up the truck.” Berkman was sent to the New York Yankees in exchange for reliever Mark Melancon and infielder Jimmy Paredes. The return was meager considering the stats Berkman had contributed throughout his career. In addition, the Yankees decision to exclusively use him off the bench and occasional designated hitter truly diminished his overall stats (.248/.368/.413 line with 14 homeruns, 58 RBI, 48 runs, and 3 stolen bases in 481 plate appearances).
Going into the off-season, most people assumed the interest in Berkman would be limited, at best. To everyone’s surprise, however, Berkman received various offers, including a one-year, $8 million deal from the Cardinals–to start in rightfield. Considering Berkman, who boasts such unflattering nicknames as “Big Puma” and “Fat Elvis,” hadn’t regularly played the outfield since 2004, the decision was laughable.
The only one laughing is Cardinals GM John Mozeliak. Berkman has returned to his former MVP-caliber self, posting a .288/.401/.597/.997 line with 26 homeruns, 66 RBI, and 59 runs. He is currently leading the league in homeruns, slugging percentage, and OPS. Even though the former first baseman isn’t exactly wowing in the field (-15.4 UZR/150 between left and rightfield), his bat has made up for it (3.2 WAR overall so far).
Beltran Angle: Beltran and Berkman, who were once teammates on Houston, do share the common ground of being dominant hitters, who were then written-off after a slow season (or two seasons, for Beltran). Unlike Berkman, Beltran will certainly provide at least above-average defense in the outfield–that is, if he isn’t playing centerfield.
Player: Johnny Damon
Free Agency Year: Pre-2010
Free Agency Age: 36
New Salary: $8,000,000
He’s been bearded, clean-shaved, long-haired, and crew-cut, but one thing Johnny Damon has always been consistent about is getting on-base, being clutch, and winning ballgames. Damon has seen the playoffs with three different teams (Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox, and New York Yankees), has been to the World Series twice in 2004 and 2009, and has two rings to show for it.
From 1998 to 2009, Damon owned a .291/360/.447 line with an average of 16 homeruns, 73 RBI, 110 runs, and 27 stolen bases per season. His finest season during that tenure was arguably with the Kansas City Royals in 2000, when he posted a .327/.382/.495 line with 16 homeruns, 88 RBI, 136 runs, and 46 stolen bases as a 26 year old. Almost ten years later, the 35 year old version of Damon swatted 24 homeruns–tied for the most in his career–to go along with a .282/.365/.489 line, 82 RBI, 107 runs, and 12 stolen bases.
It was good timing as he became a free agent during the off-season, and was the best short-term target for outfield-deprived teams who didn’t want to commit the long years and big money needed to reel-in Matt Holliday or Jason Bay. The Detroit Tigers handed Damon a one-year, $8 million deal in hopes he could maintain his power-hitting ways, while still doing his usual on-base theatrics.
However, the Tigers under-estimated the significance of Damon’s home/away splits in 2009. The lefty was obviously a huge product of Yankee Stadium’s little league-esq porch in rightfield, a haven for lefty pull hitters like Damon. In fact, Damon had jacked almost 71% of his homeruns at home in 2009 (17 of 24 homeruns), and owned a dominant .279/.382/.533 line (as compared to his still excellent, but not as powerful .284/.349/.446 line away).
Needless to say, the Tigers weren’t content with Damon’s measly 8 dingers, and parted ways with him after the season. The twice-ringed veteran signed another one-year deal, this time with the Tampa Bay Rays for $5.25 million. So far in 2011, Damon’s pop has returned a bit (9 homeruns in 389 plate appearances), but his usually stellar OB (.354 career) has plummeted (.326). With diminished power, speed, on-base, and defensive skills, Damon might have a hard time finding a full-time or even part-time gig next season.
Beltran Angle: Unlike Damon’s power spike in 2009 for the Yankees, one cannot make the same connection about Beltran in 2011. Despite the overly-spacious Citi Field, Beltran has posted a sensational .310/.405/.589 line with 9 homeruns (60% of his total), 27 RBI, and 24 runs. Also unlike Damon, Beltran has always been a defensive wiz, and continues to be competent. In comparison, Damon has posted an unfathomable -23.8 UZR/150 in leftfield.
Player: Vladimir Guerrero
Free Agency Year: Pre-2011
Free Agency Age: 35
New Salary: $8,000,000
Vladimir Guerrero was arguably the greatest hitting product to come out of the late-Montreal Expos organization. From 1998 to 2002, Vlad owned an impressive .325/.391/.602 line with an average of 39 homeruns, 116 RBI, 105 runs, and 22 stolen bases. In addition to posting monstrous stats, Vlad has also always been well-documented for swinging at a lot of pitches.
For instance, while a more patient hitter like Kevin Youkilis has swung at 38.7% of pitches he’s seen in his career, Vlad has swung at a whopping 59%. More importantly, Vlad has hacked away at 39.8% of pitches outside the zone, whereas Youkilis has just gone fishing at a rate of 18.6%. To prove how calculated those career swings have been, Youkilis and Guerrero have made contact with just about the same percentage of the non-strikes in their careers (61.8% and 66.8%, respectively).
Free-swinging aside, Guerrero was still considered a giant free agent prize in 2003, and signed a six-year, $85 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. For the first five seasons of his new contract, Guerrero was everything the Angels hoped he’d be. The former Expo enjoyed a .323/.387/.557 line with an average of 32 homeruns, 113 RBI, 97 runs, and 10 stolen bases.
Then the free-swinger endured his first injury since 2003. Vlad had injured his pectoral muscle during an exhibition game, and while it was initially diagnosed as a strain, it evolved into a tear. The injury knocked Vlad out for about a month, and when he came of the disabled list, the Angels used him primarily as their designated hitter. At age 34, Vlad was no longer an outfielder, and was a major health risk going into his first free agency since 2003. The Angels spurned Guerrero, and instead signed Hideki Matsui, who himself was a veteran/injury-risk.
Guerrero, fresh-off a long-term $85 million contract, was only able to nab a one-year pact with the Texas Rangers for $5.5 million. Most baseball heads assumed Vlad’s pectoral injury would interfere with his future career, however, Vlad stunned doubters with a .300/.345/.496 line, 29 homeruns, 115 RBI, 83 runs, and 4 stolen bases. It was his highest homerun total since 2006, and his most plate appearances since 2007.
Since the Rangers only handed Vlad a one-year deal, the now 36 year old veteran was staring at another free agent off-season. Given his renaissance season, Vlad scored a $2.5 million raise, signing a $8 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles. However, without the likes of Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, and Nelson Cruz surrounding him in a lineup, Guerrero has been enduring a difficult season in Baltimore.
Beltran Angle: While Vlad’s 2514 hits support his swinging ways and have more or less compensated for his lack of walks (career 8.4 BB%), his spiraling 2011 season might mark the end of his illustrious career. While Beltran’s career .361 OBP isn’t as “patient” as Youkilis, to Beltran’s credit, he has actually become a more patient hitter in the second half of his career (.351 OB from 1999-2006 versus .376 OB from 2007-2011). Also, Beltran’s 14.2% walk rate this season is substantially better than his 10.8% career rate. Essentially, Beltran has adapted well to age better than Guerrero, which could make him a more valuable “vintage wine” than Vladdy.
Player: Mike Piazza
Free Agency Year: Pre-2007
Free Agency Age: 37
New Salary: $8,500,000
From one long-tenured Met to another, Mike Piazza can certainly teach Carlos Beltran a thing or two about post-Mets life. From 1993 to 2002, Piazza was not only one of the most feared hitters in the National League, but he arguably became the greatest hitting catcher in history. His .322/.389/.579 line with an average of 35 homeruns, 107 RBI, and 85 runs per season was unparalleled production for a backstop.
The New York Mets acquired Piazza from the Marlins after being dealt there just eight days earlier. The catcher wowed New York fans in his first partial season with the Mets, posting a .348/.417/.607 line with 23 homeruns, 76 RBI, and 67 runs in just 446 plate appearances. But it was really from 1999 to 2002 where Piazza made his mark with the Mets. The former Dodgers-great owned a .302/.375/.576 line with an average of 37 homeruns, 107 RBI, and 85 runs during those four seasons. In addition, the slugger helped the Mets reach the playoffs for the first time since 1988, and then the World Series (which they lost to the New York Yankees). Piazza will also forever be highly regarded in Mets’ fans hearts for his memorable two-run blast in the first game back after September 11, 2000.
However, at age 34, the catcher’s knees started to give-out. Piazza was limited to just 273 plate appearances in 2003, and despite attempts to move him to first base to reduce the stress on his knees, his days as an elite hitter were gone. From 2003 to 2005, Piazza owned a comparatively mediocre .265/.352/.455 line with an average of 17 homeruns, 50 RBI, and 42 runs.
Letting Mike Piazza go to free agency was bittersweet for the Mets franchise, but given his defense liabilities and rapidly declining offensive skills, it was just. Most other teams that showed interested in Piazza’s services during free agency were in the American League, hoping that he would accept his new life in the designated hitter role. However, bullheaded in his desire to continue catching, Piazza was only able to attract the San Diego Padres, who handed him a one-year, $1.25 million contract.
The Padres got more than they bargained for. Piazza smacked a .283/.342/.501/.843 line with 22 homeruns, 68 RBI, and 39 runs in 439 plate appearances. While certainly not his best offensive showing, it was Piazza’s highest homerun and RBI total, slugging percentage, and OPS since 2002. As the Padres cleanup hitter, Piazza helped the team win their division, and reach the playoffs.
After his semi-renaissance season and newfound willingness to full-time DH, Piazza signed a one-year contract at age 37 with the Oakland Athletics for $8.5 million. Having Piazza shed the shin-guards appeared to be a smart wager for the A’s to make, but alas, Piazza severely sprained his shoulder, which resulted in his worst season since 1992. Piazza’s 2007 season, where he posted a .275/.313/.414 line with 8 homeruns, 44 RBI, and 33 runs in 329 plate appearances, marked the end of his incredible career.
Beltran Angle: Unlike Beltran, Piazza did not end his Mets career on a high note, but the two big boppers both experienced a series of injury-filled seasons before proving that they had something left in the tank. Beltran has the upper hand over Piazza given that he never had to deal with the aches and pains of being a catcher. It’s truly amazing Piazza lasted as long as he did despite crouching for a whopping 13,555 innings.