How Many Years of Clutch Hits Are Left in Carlos Beltran's Free Agent Bat?

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor INovember 4, 2013

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 27:  Carlos Beltran #3 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits a single to center field in the third inning against Clay Buchholz #11 of the Boston Red Sox scoring teammate Matt Carpenter #13 during Game Four of the 2013 World Series at Busch Stadium on October 27, 2013 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Don't let the recent postseason fool you, folks. Carlos Beltran is in decline.

Despite the mind games that October baseball can play on casual fans, Major League Baseball general managers must take a full, deep and analytical approach to each and every move made this winter. While Carlos Beltran represents one of the better players available on the market, he doesn't come without risk.

At the age of 36, Beltran is headed to free agency with an eye on one last contract and the hope of securing a World Series ring before retirement. As he told David Lennon of Newsday after the World Series, playing for a winning team is a priority.

"I'm a free agent, I've got to listen to everybody," Beltran said. "I'll make a decision based on the opportunity to play in the postseason, hopefully."

If the switch-hitter does sign with a competitive team, they'll expect big production, especially during the crucial moments of pennant race baseball and in October. While it's very likely that Beltran's bat has years of clutch hitting left in it, the day-to-day production is far less guaranteed.

Over the last two seasons, 2012 to 2013, Beltran declined at the plate and in the outfield. The differences were subtle, but it's hard to imagine an uptick in statistics and dominance over the next few seasons. If anything, Beltran's regular-season statistics could continue to tumble.

The following chart illustrates how Beltran's numbers fell across the board in 2013 compared to 2012. From games played to WAR to stolen bases, the Cardinals right fielder was not nearly as productive in his second year in St. Louis. Despite the facts, his big October (.852 OPS, 15 RBI) overshadowed the dip in production from April to September. 

Carlos Beltran: 2012 vs. 2013
dWAR (defensive WAR)0-1.5

Of course, Beltran's numbers didn't drop precipitously. The slight downgrade in OPS, games played and home runs doesn't necessarily mean he'll cease to be a productive player over the course of a short-term deal. If his numbers simply stay at his 2013 level for the next few seasons, he'll be worth a two or three-year deal. 

On the other hand, the dip in production wasn't simply a 2012 vs. 2013 line of demarcation. Instead, Beltran's decline is a continuing problem that first manifested itself in the second half of 2012.

As Erik Hahmann wrote about for Fangraphs last December, Beltran dominated National League competition upon arriving to St. Louis, but since the 2012 All-Star Game, the larger split is more telling of a player that has gone from great to good very suddenly. 

When separating Beltran's first half of 2012 from every plate appearance since, a clear picture emerges of a player that isn't likely to be a regular in the All-Star Game beyond 2014. 

Carlos Beltran: 2012 First Half vs. 2012 Second Half and 2013
Stat2012 First HalfSince

To be fair, any outfielder than can post an .802 OPS over 876 plate appearances is far from finished, but Beltran's 62/154 strikeout-to-walk ratio over that time is a sign that pitchers are no longer afraid to attack him on a day-to-day basis during the regular season.

The Beltran (.924 OPS) that dominated the first half of 2012 was on par with sluggers like the versions Andrew McCutchen (.911 OPS) and Edwin Encarnacion (.904 OPS) that baseball fans saw in 2013. In reality, Beltran profiles much more like Shane Victorino (.801 OPS) now than he does his former dominant self.

As available players begin to take visits, negotiate with teams and choose their next destinations, Beltran's name will be front and center on the hot stove. His reputation as one of the best October hitters in the sport precedes him, but his next hometown should not expect an MVP in 2014 or 2015.

It's hard to imagine Carlos Beltran, outside of one justifiable strikeout at a nasty Adam Wainwright offering in 2006, not having an impact in the biggest moments of a game or season. He's too clutch and too much of a force when the game is on the line. Over the life of his next contract, clutch hits will be in abundance. 

Dominance, however, won't be part of the equation. 

Unfortunately for the general manager who shells out millions for the former franchise player, expectations may exceed results.

Carlos Beltran is a soon-to-be 37-year-old outfielder that no longer is a great defender or exceptional runner. His value will be enhanced by an unquestioned ability to rise to the occasion in October and the versatility his switch-hitting bat provides any roster in daily lineup construction.

Clutch hits will be present, but Beltran's next team would be foolish to ask him to be the player that carries them into October. He can put a team on his back for two or three weeks every fall, but he's no longer the star to carry a franchise through the summer.

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