added 1/5/2010 by Bob Hulsey
It was five years ago this week that the Astros lost the bid to re-sign outfielder Carlos Beltran, the star of their 2004 postseason run. The Astros' best offer was reported to be $108 million over seven years (the franchise's richest offer to that time) while the Mets eventually signed him for $119 million, although the difference in state taxes almost offset the $11 million difference (although that would not have impressed Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, who likely gets paid based on the amount of the contract, not on its worth after taxes).
Some claim Boras' plan all along was to keep pushing the Astros higher as a way to drive up the price on the Mets, with whom the deal would be finalized with all along. Boras' typical ploy is to have more than one team bid against each other, sometimes inventing higher bidders where none truly exists.
In this case, there truly were two bidders and, if you believe the media reports of the day, the real sticking point between Beltran and the Astros was Houston's refusal to grant a full no-trade clause to Beltran - something he eventually got from the Mets.
But what if Beltran had agreed to stay in Houston? How might that have changed the last five years? Keep in mind, I can only speculate since it didn't actually happen but there seems to be a decision chain that might have left the Astros looking quite different than the club we see today.
Despite all the different ways to statistically measure players, Beltran's true value is difficult to gauge. He is a true "five-tool" player, one who can hit for power, hit for average, steal bases, make plays in the field and throw out runners. But he was not the classic 40-homer slugger, more like 25. His batting average rarely stayed over .300, usually settling into the .280 range when the season was done. And his fielding in center was more than just above average, at least in his younger days.
For this exercise, I'm going to look season-to-season for how I project Beltran's continued presence in Houston would have affected the team, the payroll and the personnel decisions that came afterward.
Let's start with 2005. Beltran's replacement was Willy Taveras, a speedster who hit for average as well as Beltran but without much power. He had speed to burn in the outfield but showed a lack of polish that Beltran displayed out there. With the loss of Jeff Kent and the decline of Jeff Bagwell, it was the emergence of third baseman Morgan Ensberg and right fielder Jason Lane that picked up the slack on offense.
Had Beltran stayed, Taveras would have either stayed in AAA or he would have become a reserve and a defensive replacement. He could have also been moved to left field and continued to start and lead off, taking playing time away from Chris Burke.
An extra $11 million might have been tough for Drayton McLane to swallow and might have caused him to pass on signing Roger Clemens that spring, although my guess is that it wouldn't have. Clemens, IMO, was the one player McLane considered to be outside the budget because his value returned in ways such as increased publicity, greater attendance on the days he pitched and higher merchandise sales. As great as some of the Astros players were, nobody sold tickets and buzz like Clemens did so I think McLane might have signed him anyway.
With Beltran in the two hole and most of the rest of the roster the same, I think the Astros might have not needed that miracle run to reach the wild card and sailed through the playoffs even more easily than they did. Whether Beltran's postseason magic would have been enough to overtake the White Sox in the World Series is an open question but I believe the Astros would not have been swept the way they were had Carlos been out there.
2006 was the year the Astros fought with their insurer over Jeff Bagwell's policy, a settlement not reached until after the season was over. The two big signings were Preston Wilson for left field and Clemens, again, at a steep $22 million for four months. I think the Astros would have balked at signing Wilson and might have deferred more money to Clemens if they had to pay for Beltran.
Beltran would have still been an upgrade over Taveras. This was clearly Beltran's best year with the Mets - 41 homers, 116 RBIs and a .982 OPS - although he missed 22 games. This was also the year Luke Scott started to emerge and he might have been the eventual starter in left field sooner had Wilson not been signed.
Would these changes have made the Astros two games better to overtake the Cardinals for the division title? Yes, but the Astros had been a lethargic bunch most of the year so it is hard to picture them getting hot in the postseason the way the Redbirds did that year.
2007 was a pivotal year. No Bagwell. No Clemens. No Andy Pettitte. The four key moves were the signings of outfielder Carlos Lee and pitcher Woody Williams, the emergence of rookie outfielder Hunter Pence, and the trade which brought Jason Jennings from Colorado.
The acquisitions of Williams and Jennings were a disaster. Couple that with the rapid decline of Ensberg, Lane and Brad Lidge and it is unlikely any team could have overcome that, Beltran or no. Without Lee, the outfield might have been Scott, Beltran and Pence with Beltran and Lance Berkman supplying most of the power (Beltran hit 33 homers as a Met that year) while everyone focused on Craig Biggio's ascent to the 3,000-hit club.
Then came Ed Wade that fall and a whole flurry of roster moves. I'm sure Wade would have still tried to trade Lidge but Michael Bourn would not have been the focus of the deal. Finding another player with some home run pop would have been more important than finding a speedy center fielder since we already had Beltran. Maybe Shane Victorino might have been the target, rather than Bourn.
Or he might have kept Lidge which would have likely meant no trade for Jose Valverde, meaning we might still have Chad Qualls.
I think the Tejada trade would still have been made although finding a left fielder to replace Scott would have become a priority (Ty Wigginton, perhaps?). Beltran's power numbers continued to decline in New York but he got through the entire 2008 season healthy. For the latter part of the decade, Beltran's salary comes so close to the same as Carlos Lee's, you'd simply have one contract substitute for the other. Therefore, all other salary moves actually made can remain the same which is partly why I think the Tejada trade still happens despite the spike in payroll.
For 2009, Beltran played only half the season with injuries and the Mets had a worse season than the Astros which tells you all you need to know about whether Beltran would have made a difference were he still in Houston. Judging only on last season, we were better off with El Caballo.
For all the complaining Houston fans do about Lee's contract handcuffing the front office, I think they'd be doing the same if it were Beltran instead of Lee. While he had a nice half-year, Beltran has given the Mets less in return for their millions every year since 2006.
Unfortunately, the signing of Beltran would not have ultimately changed Houston's fortunes. They would have improved some the first two years but Beltran would not have been enough to overcome the rapid decline of Ensberg and Lane coupled with the failure to find quality starting pitching behind Roy Oswalt.
Those of you who are still booing Beltran for signing with the Mets can probably stop now. In the end, I don't think the difference would have been large enough to matter.