Carlos, Don’t Let It Go To Your Head

So Carlos Beltran wants to come back to St. Louis next year, eh?

That’s the impression he left in an article by Jennifer Langosch posted to the Cardinals website. In the article, he said he loves St. Louis and “his family has embraced the city.” That’s not a foreign concept to Cardinals fans, who have heard similar statements over the years from players like Larry Walker, Mark McGwire and yes, even Albert Pujols. Cardinals nation is extremely loyal and supportive, so why wouldn’t a player want to play in the Busch Stadium environment?

The issue here is that Beltran would like to have some confirmation from the team as to whether he might be invited back after 2013. While Beltran was quoted in the article as saying he understands “the business of the game,” he also said he would love to hear from the Cardinals before the end of the season.

While Beltran certainly earned his contract in 2012, one cannot help but wonder if the team should commit to the outfielder beyond this season. Let’s consider three important factors here:

1. Recent history argues against it.

Let’s look at two players’ recent statistics.

Player A: 151 games, 619 PA, .269/.346/.495, 32 HR, 97 RBI, 3.6 WAR
Player B: 145 games, 587 PA, .301/.412/.547, 31 HR, 94 RBI, 3.3 WAR

Player A is, of course, Carlos Beltran’s numbers in 2012. Solid statistics, of course, with power numbers and a solid WAR. This all took place at the age of 35.

Player B? Yep, that’s Lance Berkman in 2011, also at the age of 35. His slash numbers were higher (granted, in a lower number of plate appearances). His power numbers, RBI totals and WAR were quite comparable.

According to Cot’s Contracts, Berkman made $8 million in 2011, and most certainly earned a new contract. He got another year at $12 million for 2012. But what would have happened had Berkman asked for two years — and gotten it? After his 2011 season, would that have seemed completely unreasonable? Absolutely not! But there’s no question that Cardinals nation is thankful that the Cards aren’t on the hook for a second year at $12 million.

Beltran may not regress to Berkman-esque numbers, but there may be room for concern. Beltran played in 142 games in 2011, but that was just three more games than he played in 2009 and 2010. Other than his .255 batting average in his injury-shortened 2010 season, his slash lines were at their lowest since 2008 (the slugging percentage being the exception). The power numbers were really the highlight of his 2012 season.

So what does one expect out of Beltran for 2013? With his numbers being such a wild card, can the Cardinals really invest in a soon-to-be 36-year-old rightfielder? That’s a risk John Mozeliak may not want to take.

2. The future is now!

The future, of course, is Oscar Taveras. The drool-worthy centerfielder posted stud numbers in 2012 at Double-A Springfield, posting a slash of .321/.380/.572 with 23 bombs and 94 home runs. MLB.com had him rated as the number one prospect in the organization, ahead of the likes of Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal. He will likely start the season at Triple-A Memphis, and if his numbers continue to improve steadily, he might even get a taste of the Majors by September.

Sure, Taveras may have a down year in Memphis, not able to acclimate to improved competition. But with this kind of “can’t-miss” prospect, it seems inappropriate to entertain the notion of signing Beltran to an extension. The team would be burying their top prospect for one, maybe two years. And there’s probably nothing wrong with giving Taveras an opportunity to be at his sharpest before coming up to St. Louis, but it seems most logical to give him an opportunity to compete at the highest level as soon as he’s possibly ready.

3. The starting rotation will screw everything up.

No offense to Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, but with their contracts expiring after the season, the Cardinals are going to have to make some serious financial decisions. Carpenter will make $12.5 million this season, and Wainwright is scheduled to make $12 million in 2013 (thanks Cot’s!). Most likely, the Cardinals will let Chris Carpenter go, but they are going to have to spend some serious cash to keep Wainwright.

A quick glance of the 2014 free agent class at the starting pitcher position reveals some interesting names. They include Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Edinson Volquez, and Matt Garza, as well as Waino and Carp. It’s quite an interesting class to consider, and there’s no question these pitchers will be paid.

But of that list, Wainwright seems to be the top name. Johnson has battled a number of injuries and has to hope his 2013 season improves his stock. Lincecum is coming off a down year. Volquez and Garza are cheaper options who won’t provide the same value that Wainwright offers.

In other words, Wainwright is going to command the most attention, and it would behoove the Cardinals to lock him up as soon as possible. Doing so — and eliminating competition from other suitors — might also save them some money.

And where does that leave Beltran? Yes, Carpenter’s salary will likely come off the books, but that won’t be enough to pay Beltran. In addition, the Cards might have to make some decisions at middle infield, and may also need to figure out something with that other open spot in the rotation (although Miller, Rosenthal or somebody else will likely take it.)

In other words, there are a lot of question marks with this team. Beltran may not be the best answer.

The Cardinals have been blessed to have Carlos Beltran in that lineup, and most likely will reap the benefits of another strong year, but signing him to an extension now would be a tremendous mistake. In fact, it might not even be worth it after the season ends.

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