As Rangers' season crumbles, Hall-of-Fame worthy Beltre stands tall
There are disappointing seasons, there are bad seasons, there are terrible seasons, there are atrocious seasons, there are seasons that lead you to turn the clubhouse upside down in search of a dubiously acquired ancient amulet. And then there is what is happening to the Texas Rangers in 2014.
The Rangers' descent from genuine World Series contender to the league’s most accursed club reached its nadir this week, when general manager Jon Daniels announced that prized free agent Shin-Soo Choo will not play again until 2015 and that ace Yu Darvish likely won’t, either. Texas currently has nearly $72 million worth of players — including Prince Fielder, each of the five pitchers who would form their ideal rotation, and nine others — on the disabled list. If you want to know why the Rangers, who were 34-34 on June 14 and have gone 17-47 since, were a unanimous selection as baseball’s worst team in this week’s Power Rankings and are now largely comprised of players of whom you might not have heard, this is an excellent place to start.
Even so, despite all the Adducis and Mikolases and Telises and Tepesches to whom the Rangers have been forced to give meaningful work, they have one player who has remained a bright spot. Before September arrives and the narrative shifts entirely to those clubs that remain alive in playoff races, it is worth pausing for a moment to give him his due once again, and to examine a season and a career that seems voodoo-proof, if not immune to the effects of his home ballpark.
Adrian Beltre turned 35 in April, an age by which most players can be expected to have begun a precipitous decline. Beltre has not. Through Wednesday, Beltre has, in several respects, had one of the best seasons of the many excellent ones he has produced in his 17-year career. His batting average, .327, has him not only in line to challenge for his first batting title (he trails the Astros’ Jose Altuve by six points in the American League) but also to finish with the second-best mark of his career. His OPS+ of 145 would also represent his second-best, if it holds. Beltre also has 17 home runs and 66 RBI while playing defense that, if no longer elite, remains firmly above league average.
In fact, this might be the season in which Beltre has ensured his place in the Hall of Fame. If his enshrinement was arguable even a year ago, it likely isn’t anymore. Beltre's Cooperstown credentials have long been harmed by a few factors. He has never won an MVP award, though he has been a top-nine finisher four times. He has made only four All-Star teams, all in the past five years. Also, the shape of his career resembles an upside-down bell curve, due mostly to the five numbers-sapping, in-his-prime years he spent as a member of the Mariners between 2005 and '09 in the extremely pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Beltre batted just .266 and averaged 21 home runs and 79 RBI during those years (he has since hit .314 with full-season averages of 32 homers and 100 RBI). But by the time he becomes Hall eligible — in another decade or so — voters will likely have become even more attuned to the truly deleterious effects that parks like Safeco, which had its walls moved in before last season, had on the hitters who played there.
They might also have become more sophisticated about the unusual demands of the position that Beltre plays, which requires not only excellent reflexes and a strong arm, but also power. According to Baseball Reference, the Hall now contains 17 players who played at least 50 percent of their games at first base, as well as 18 second basemen and 20 shortstops, but just 12 third basemen. If Chipper Jones is likely to become the 13th, Beltre should be the 14th. His career Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference's formulation, is now 76.5, the eighth-best among any regular of any type who is not currently in the Hall (he started the year in 16th) and already the seventh-best all time for anyone at his position.
As his team has crumbled around him, Beltre has shown no signs of doing the same. He has continued his delightfully sibling-like rivalry with teammate Elvis Andrus, and he has demonstrated an ever-increasing command of the strike zone: His strikeout rate of 11 percent is the league's 15th best, and he has whiffed just four times in the month of August. He has a genuine chance of finishing his career with the second-best WAR for any third baseman ever, ahead of Eddie Mathews' 96.4 and behind only Mike Schmidt's 106.5, and also with the fourth-best WAR among players not yet in the Hall (after Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols). More importantly for the Rangers, he represents a constant around which they can field their presumably healthy 2015 team, once this season has finally reached its merciful end.
Beltre is not the only player on whom a last place team can pin its future hopes. Here are four others who have been points of light for the league's current cellar dwellers:
The 23-year-old Arenado's breakout season was interrupted by a broken finger he suffered in May, but unlike teammates Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, he was able to return. He has otherwise performed very well for the league's second-most-cursed club, batting .305 with 14 homers and 52 RBI in 93 games and playing stellar defense.
The Cubs' future is tied to their unmatched cadre of hitting prospects — particularly Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler — but Arrieta, the formerly disappointing Oriole, has found himself at the age of 28. He's 7-4 with an ERA (2.53) and strikeout rate (9.2 per nine) that rank in the top-seven among NL starters who have worked at least 120 innings.
The Twins likely wish they had given Ricky Nolasco's free agent deal (four years, $49 million) to Hughes (three years, $24 million) instead. The 28-year-old erstwhile Yankees phenom is easily their WAR leader, with a 14-8 record, a 3.65 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 10:1, the best in baseball.
If the aging Phillies have any hope of a quick turnaround, the 26-year-old Revere, acquired from the Twins two Decembers ago, will play a central role. Revere has developed into a promising leadoff man: He’s second in the NL in average (.311) and third in steals (39), though he has little power to speak of, with just one big league home run, struck against the Rockies in May.