There’s no replacing David Ortiz, but the Red Sox are obviously going to have to take a shot at it this offseason. While they’re hoping for improvement elsewhere in the lineup—a full year of Andrew Benintendi holds plenty of promise, and maybe they’ll find someone in their thousand-and-one options at third—they’ll probably want to take advantage of that defense-free spot having lost the best hitter of 2016.
The obvious move is to get Edwin Encarnacion, but just as obvious are the reasons to avoid him. He’s old, expensive, and while he was still quite good in 2016, showed at least some signs of heading in the wrong direction. For a team that’s already loaded up on big contracts, four-or-more years of Encarnacion may just prove too restricting.
Carlos Beltran is one of the names that’s been floated around as a possible alternative, and yeah, he makes Encarnacion look like a spring chicken. With David Ortiz having put away his bat, Beltran has the market cornered on old at 39-going-on-40. And when the Yankees signed him to a three-year deal at 36-going-on-37 because of course they did, he seemed ready to fall off the cliff, hitting just .233/.301/.402 in his first season with New York. Since then, though, he’s put up two solid years with an .830 OPS, translating to a 120 OPS+. That’s not Ortizian, and it’s not even on Encarnacion’s level, but it’s still strong output from your DH.
That’s what Beltran did at 39, though. What should matter more to the Red Sox is what he does at 40. First, the positive side: he’ll be getting off his feet full-time. While Beltran hasn’t always been in the field in the last couple years, he’s still been pushed out to the outfield for 500 innings last year, and nearly 1,000 the year before that. With the Red Sox, chances are that number approaches zero. It might or might not be a huge help, but it certainly can’t hurt.
Now for the rest. And the first you should probably ignore, but here goes: Beltran was an old guy playing for the Yankees. There’s no real clear mechanism here, and it’s probably just statistical noise, but the Yankees do seem to have a penchant for keeping old players looking young. And not for nothing, but when Beltran went to Texas for the second half of 2016, it did not go terribly well for him. Take this with a huge grain of salt, but if I’m being completely honest, it’s a little hard to trust numbers from old guys in New York, even if that doubt might not be hugely logical.
With that out of the way...Hey, that Texas downturn actually is concerning. It was only 206 plate appearances, and it wasn’t completely awful, but seeing a player Beltran’s age slow down as the year goes on invites the question of just how much he has left in the tank. It’s not like Texas is a hard place to hit, either. He just...didn’t. Again, it could be noise, but it’s one more red flag.
Also concerning: his walk rate. Beltran drew just 35 walks last year--his lowest total since 2010, when he played all of 64 games. The 5.9 BB% was the lowest he’d ever produced outside of his brief debut stint in 1998. And it came thanks to Beltran chasing more balls than in any year outside of 2013. Not a good thing, but not completely damning.
The other part of Beltran’s profile from last year which really stands out can be taken either way, really. A big part of his productivity in 2016 came from the long ball, with Beltran producing 29 on the year. His 17.3% HR/FB rate was the highest he’d produced since 2012, and actually his third best mark ever. This is positive for Beltran in that it’s the only reason he’s even coming up as an option—without those extra homers, he doesn’t seem nearly so interesting an option. They are, however, still a bit curious. Even David Ortiz’ 2016 HR/FB rate was below his career average. He saw some of his better years in 2012 and 2015, but nothing near the huge ~50% spike that Beltran had compared to his last three seasons.
This is even more concerning when you consider that 19 of Beltrans 29 homers came in home games played in New York and Texas. While Fenway is an offense-heavy park, it tends to grade out negatively for homers, with the Monster taking away nearly as many as it produces, and the depth in right field and center causing problems for left-handed hitters. Given that 20 of Beltran’s 29 homers came as a left-handed hitter last year, this too could prove a major stumbling block for him. And when the ball doesn’t leave the park, Beltran is going to struggle to take extra bases—he’s gone from a pretty neutral baserunner in his mid-30s to decidedly negative these last few years. David Ortiz could overcome hitting singles that bounced off the wall with sheer volume. Can Beltran?
All told, there’s just a lot not to like about Beltran in Boston. And I think this stands out particularly well when comparing him with what, say, Chris Young might bring to the plate. Obviously we can’t just take Young’s 2016 at face value and say he’d hit to an .850 OPS as a DH, or anything close, but throw both men into the Steamer projection algorithm and you get Beltran at .270/.324/.448 and Young at .251/.322/.438. These projections are far from gospel, but they give you an idea of what you’re bargaining for here. In Beltran, you’ve got a guy coming off a strong year who stands a good chance at being undone by age and a regression in one key area (and that’s before taking a change in venue into account). In Young, you’ve got a guy coming off a strong year which stands a good chance of being something of a fluke. Yeah, that would move Young out of his platoon outfield role, but frankly the Sox would be just fine just leaving Bradley in center full-time thanks to his glove, and while Benintendi’s splits against lefties were ugly last year, they stem from all of 33 plate appearances. The Sox might well not need much of a fourth outfielder.
This is not to argue for Chris Young, designated hitter. Only to suggest that if the Sox are going to add a player to take David Ortiz’ place, they should probably be looking for someone who clearly and reliably offers them an upgrade over one of the options they already have. And at his age, it’s hard to say Beltran does that.