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What if the Red Sox had brought back Adrián Beltré

It’s a decision that could have changed the entire league.

Boston Red Sox v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It is “What if?” week at SB Nation, so we’ll have a few posts throughout the week looking at some “What ifs” from Red Sox history. This is one of those posts!

When I sent out the call to the staff last week about doing some posts on “what ifs” my assumption was that this would be the first one claimed. To me, there are two iconic “what ifs” in recent Red Sox history, with one being the almost trade for Alex Rodriguez and then this one: The decision not to re-sign Adrián Beltré after his incredible 2010 season. This is a decision that sparked a series of moves that led to not only one of the wildest decades for any team ever for the Red Sox, but also had ripple effects that were felt throughout baseball.

I suppose it makes the most sense to start back before Beltré even came to the Red Sox. A former top prospect with the Dodgers, the third baseman had a solid start to his career before his true breakout in 2004 when he finished second in MVP voting. He hit the open market after that season and signed a big deal with the Mariners, but peaked at good rather than great with Seattle. His value was low at that point, so when he hit the market again after the 2009 season he was seeking a one-year pillow deal and the Red Sox were happy to oblige. We know the rest. He raked for the Red Sox to the tune of a 141 OPS+ then moved on to the Rangers the following winter where he had one of the best post-age-30 stretches of all-time and will be in Cooperstown before too long.

The Red Sox, of course, could have brought him back but decided to bank that one year of value and take the draft pick, which they ended up using on Blake Swihart, and move in a different direction. They had Kevin Youkilis still, and were prepared to move him back to third base. To fill the hole at first base, they traded Anthony Rizzo and Casey Kelly, among others, to the Padres for Adrian Gonzalez. They also signed Carl Crawford. We know how these moves ended up, how they got rid of them, and how they used the new roster space to build the 2013 team. All of this started when they let Beltré walk in free agency.

So, what happens if they do indeed decide to sign him to the six-year, $96 million deal that the Rangers signed him with. Well, first and foremost, that eliminates the need to make the trade for Gonzalez. Like I said, they still had Youkilis and they could have very well just kept him at first base where he played in 2010. You lose a little offensively in this trade-off — Gonzalez had a 155 OPS+ in 2011 while Beltré had a 131 mark — but the defense makes up for that, and the team is probably just as good overall. Additionally, a little further down the road, they don’t have to sign Pablo Sandoval with Beltré at third base.

This now opens up a fork in the road, though. Without the need for a Gonzalez trade, all of a sudden Rizzo and Kelly are still in the organization and can either be kept or they can be traded in a separate deal. In the former scenario, maybe Kelly develops better and doesn’t suffer the same injury bad luck, but there’s no way to accurately speculate on that. However, the Rizzo piece of this is really interesting, and something that Shelly talked about earlier this week. I won’t go into all of that again, but the short version is they have their first baseman of the future all set. Mike Napoli and Mitch Moreland were certainly key contributors to World Series teams, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that a Beltré/Rizzo pairing on the corners couldn’t bring the same, if not better, results.

This what if scenario also opens up the door for other trades throughout the decade, not only for Rizzo and Kelly in a different deal but also for guys like Will Middlebrooks and Garin Cecchini. Since they were blocked, it would have been much easier to deal them at peak value and get a real return. Just looking at the Rizzo/Kelly package and looking at deals made at the time, Boston may have been able to work out a deal for a really good pitcher like maybe Zack Greinke or Mat Latos or Matt Garza. Maybe it’s not the exact framework of the Gonzalez deal to get it done, but Rizzo and Kelly would be a good start for a different blockbuster as well.

And then as you move further down the road, all of a sudden you have the absolute perfect mentor for Rafael Devers ready to hand the torch over at exactly the right time. Devers didn’t seem fazed by being rushed to the majors, but he could have been eased in more slowly while playing behind one of the best to ever play the position and someone who showed in Texas that he has a penchant for mentoring younger infielders.

As I alluded to above, too, it’s not just the Red Sox that are affected here. Obviously the Rangers are as well, losing out on one of their big stars from the 2011 pennant run. Maybe they make it anyway since they did win the AL pennant in 2010 without Beltré, but it becomes a lot more difficult. The Rangers were one of the better teams in baseball for Beltré’s first three years there, and obviously that changes without him. Perhaps even more impactful in the league-wide scope is what happens to the Cubs. Chicago obviously ended up trading for Rizzo, who became a core piece of the team that won the franchise their first championship since 1908. If the Red Sox don’t have to trade for Gonzalez, the Padres can’t trade Rizzo to the Cubs. That team was good enough to win without any one player, but it’s very possible that this universe still has the Cubs without a championship.

Beltré was flat-out one of the most fun Red Sox players of my lifetime and one of the best one-year players the franchise has ever seen. Both sides ultimately got what they wanted out of the one-year pillow deal, but the Red Sox had a chance to keep the magic going after that deal was up. It worked out okay for the Red Sox with their two championships in the decade after he left, but the decision opened up a lot of different roads, and it’s fascinating to think about how the league would be different if Boston had made a different choice that winter.