When the Red Sox signed Adrian Beltre to a one year deal this offseason, the expectations were pretty tame. Great defense, certainly, but nothing much above average in the batter's box. So far, the results have been almost the reverse. Beltre has dominated at the plate, leading all third basemen in wOBA--far better than expected. He's not been quite what we were hoping for defensively, but he's still well above average at the hot corner. Such production leaves the Red Sox with a tricky question come the end of the season: what to do with free agent Beltre?
The immediate response has to be "bring him back at almost any cost." And it's certainly tempting simply to go with that. But there are certainly some red flags that must at least give us pause.
To start with, there's the question of just how much better he has actually been offensively. After all, that .366 BABIP sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to a .294 career average. But even taking BABIP alone is a mistake. Consider, for instance, Beltre's increased line drive rate. Sitting at 23.4 percent, it's a good four percent over his career average, and going by the old add 12 points rule, a .366 BABIP isn't particularly far off.
On the other hand, there's also something to be said for luck when it comes to line drive hitting, so what else is up with Beltre? Interestingly, it's a matter of plate discipline--and in what would seem to be a bad way on the surface. Adrian Beltre is walking less than almost any other year in his career, swinging at more pitches outside of the zone than just about every year, and making more contact--particularly on balls outside the zone. This has resulted, perhaps surprisingly, in a tight group of line drives to right field leading to a .348 BABIP to that field--an area where he had previously had significant problems in his career. It doesn't precisely seem sustainable.
But then there's the power to consider. Beltre's ISO is higher than any year other than his monster 2004, as is his HR/FB rate. This isn't purely an effect of Fenway, either, as Beltre's road numbers are noticeably better than at home. When combined with his high contact rates, you do have to give Beltre some credit for his season. He generally seems to be a guy who is seeing and hitting the ball better than ever before. Playing in Fenway instead of Safeco can't hurt, either. While I don't think anyone could expect another season of wOBA over 400, but certainly a return to his Seattle form seems unlikely as well.
Then there's the defense. The biggest complaint against Beltre so far has been errors, and certainly so far he's had some troubles in that department. At -2.6, his errors have cost more runs than in any other season of his career. Unfortunately, this seems to be a rather consistent decline, as he has gotten worse in that regard every year since 2004. His range, while still well above average, is also not precisely what it used to be. At 6.5 runs above average, 2010 will likely end up on the low end of the middle-of-the-pack compared to his other seasons. He is not likely to pull a Lowell, who was never consistently a high range guy, but he might not last as a plus defensive player for the entirety of any lengthy contract.
There are some other factors to take into consideration as well, such as the contract year effect. Is this just another, less impressive rendition of his 2004 tear that will disappear the moment he is locked up for multiple years?
How about the Red Sox' payroll and roster? If they're willing to spend up to the luxury tax, with about $21 million in dead contracts coming off the budget, what do they have to spend on other than Beltre, maybe Victor Martinez if nothing comes of the various catcher trade rumors, and the bullpen? Factor in what Beltre's already getting paid and the Sox could shell out a good chunk of change while still being able to drop some on getting a legitimate middle reliever.
Or consider who would replace him? The list of free agent third baseman is abysmal, with the best performers in the game locked up for the forseeable future. The Sox have to be willing to overpay to turn a below average player into, say, a four win player (by WAR) like Beltre can probably be expected to be--when you get a relatively filled out team like the Red Sox will likely be, the value of each extra win increases. Add in a farm system that won't spit out a third baseman for another couple of years at least, and Beltre is suddenly looking heads and tails better than the second best option.
Ultimately it will be impossible to make a decision on Beltre until we see what the market is. With an MVP-type season to ride, Scott Boras will be trying to milk every last dollar and every last year out of a player who is likely to join Carl Crawford as the top target on the market. If he comes looking for incredibly high figures like four years, $80 million, the Sox will most certainly have to turn on their heel and perhaps look into a trade, or even at moving Youkilis to third (far from the most desirable option, to be sure). Hopefully they can get something reasonable done, but no matter what, they shouldn't be going in looking to pay for 2010 Beltre, because we likely won't be seeing him again.