Wednesday January 5th, 2011

The Texas Rangers took a huge step toward repeating as American League West champions on Tuesday by coming to terms with third baseman Adrian Beltre on a contract reportedly worth $96 million over the next six years. That's a huge commitment to a player who will turn 32 in April and has played at an All-Star level in just two of his 13 major league seasons, but it's one that seems likely to pay off for the Rangers, particularly given their current position in the American League hierarchy.

Beltre's arrival will force incumbent third baseman and longest-tenured Ranger Michael Young to designated hitter, thus ending the team's flirtation with bringing 2010 DH Vladimir Guerrero back into the fold. For the coming season, then, Beltre is replacing Guerrero's bat and Young's glove. It's the latter which represents the larger upgrade for the Rangers. Young has been a starter at second base, shortstop (where he won a Gold Glove in 2008) and third base but the truth is since he moved to short to accommodate the arrival of the similarly deficient Alfonso Soriano in 2004, Young has regularly ranked among the worst fielders in the major leagues, according to most range-based advanced defensive metrics. In 2010, Young was rated as 5.4 runs below average at third base by Ultimate Zone Rating, and 13 runs below average in John Dewan's plus/minus system. Beltre, by comparison, has been one of the very best defensive third baseman in the major leagues throughout his career and was rated as 11.8 runs above average by UZR and 10 above average by Dewan in 2010. That makes Beltre an upgrade of roughly 20 runs, or two wins, on defense alone.

The upgrade represented by Beltre's bat is more difficult to project given the inconsistency of his performances at the plate. With the Dodgers in 2004, he batted .334/.388/.629 with 48 home runs and 121 RBIs, all career highs. With the Red Sox in 2010, he batted .321/.365/.553 with 28 home runs and 102 RBIs, all the second-best of his career. In no other season has be batted higher than .290, hit more than 26 home runs or driven in 100 runs. It would certainly be foolish to expect Beltre to repeat his MVP-quality 2010 season, but there are reasons to expect his regression from that peak to be minimal. Prior to last season, Beltre's 2004 looked like a fluke, but his 2010 season bore a strong similarity to that performance and gives considerable support to the theory that Beltre's production was greatly undermined by playing in Seattle's Safeco Park during his five seasons with the Mariners from 2005-09.

According to the Park Factors section in the 2009 Bill James Handbook, Safeco Park was a below-average hitting environment for righthanders from 2006 to 2008, and in 2008 and 2009, Safeco's Park Factors for righthanded home runs (with 100 being neutral) were 87 and 77, respectively. Beltre, a righthanded power hitter, hit just .254/.307/.411 at home as a Mariner, but .277/.326/.471 on the road, a difference of 23 points of batting average and an additional 37 points of slugging.

Toss out his injury-plagued final season in Seattle in 2009, and Beltre's slugging percentage on the road as a Mariner jumps to .485. It was no surprise, then, that he had a monster season in 2010 while playing in the AL East, where four of the five parks favor hitters. It would also be no surprise if, playing his home games at the launching pad that is Rangers Ballpark In Arlington (Park Factor for right-handed home runs since 2008: 114, for right-handed batting average: 107), he has a very respectable follow-up season. Indeed, Beltre has hit .308/.336/.514 in 208 at-bats in Arlington since moving to the American League for the 2005 season.

That last line is pretty close to what the Rangers got from Guerrero last year (.300/.345/.496), so call it even in terms of replacing Guerrero's production for 2011. Remember too that the 36-year-old Guerrero's production went missing in July and August of last year, and if not for his injury-plagued 2009 season, his 2010 numbers (29 home runs, 115 RBIs) would have been his worst since his rookie campaign of 1997, which suggests an encroaching decline.

Thus, signing Beltre gives the Rangers a two-win improvement on the production of their 2010 pennant-winning lineup, and perhaps an even bigger upgrade over a potential 2011 alignment that would have kept Young at third and brought Guerrero back to DH. It also keeps Beltre away from a pair of AL West rivals in the A's, who had made a serious offer to Beltre, and the Angels, who have a gaping hole at third base and could have thrust themselves back into contention by signing Beltre to fill it.

It's difficult to see the addition of Beltre as anything other than a major plus for the 2011 Rangers. The only question is whether or not the size and length of their commitment to him will come back to bite them before his contact expires at the end of his age-37 season. Again, the questions surround Beltre's bat. To be sure, Beltre's defense will have declined by the time his contract expires, though it's difficult to imagine even a 37-year-old Beltre being as bad, never mind worse, than Young has been at the hot corner the last two seasons. Meanwhile, Scott Rolen's continued fine work at the hot corner at age 35 provides a contemporary example of an exemplary defensive third baseman who has aged well in the field, doing so despite a large frame and frequent injuries, disadvantages Beltre doesn't share (Rolen is five inches taller than Beltre, who has started 150 games in the field in seven of the last nine seasons with a low of 110).

Beltre's bat is less of a sure thing. He has never been a particularly disciplined hitter and his lack of walks means he has to hit for a strong average to avoid making an excess of outs. When he's not hitting .320, he derives most of his value from his power, which could make a drop in bat speed as he ages particularly problematic. He'll have his new home ballpark on his side, but he'll still be playing a large portion of his road games at the unfriendly Safeco and Oakland Coliseum, and unless he does manage to hold on to the gains he made in 2010, he won't have much room for decline.

The good news for the Rangers is that the reported terms of Beltre's contract include a clause allowing the team to void the sixth year if Beltre fails to reach certain plate appearance minimums in the fourth and fifth years. Of course, at an average annual salary of $16 million (a match for what the Rangers will pay Young over the next three seasons, a contract that has already proven problematic), that would mean the team would have sunk roughly $32 million to save an approximate $16 million. Still, for a franchise under new ownership that just won its first pennant, heck its first playoff series, in its first postseason appearance in more than a decade, there's justification for overspending some of the revenue from a massive new local television contract in an attempt to keep the team in the pennant chase over the next few seasons despite the potential damage to the bottom line in the few seasons after that.

The Rangers aren't yet guaranteed to return to the postseason this year. For instance, much has to go right in their starting rotation -- including committing to Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland as starters for the coming season and beyond -- but with Beltre converting extra outs at third base, the chances of those good things happening have dramatically improved, as have the Rangers chances of repeating as division champions.

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