Carlos Beltran Signing Puts Astros One Step Away from AL Favorites

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 4, 2016

The last time Carlos Beltran was in a Houston Astros uniform, he was punishing baseballs left and right as he led the team deep into the postseason.

It could be deja vu all over again 11 months from now.

After parting ways back in 2004, Beltran and the Astros reunited Saturday. Buster Olney of ESPN.com was first to report the Astros had signed the 39-year-old switch-hitter to a one-year, $16 million contract. According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, Beltran's contract also features a full no-trade clause.

Go ahead and score another one for an Astros lineup that has reached full ignition this winter.

The Astros already had a core of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Evan Gattis, Alex Bregman and Yulieski Gurriel. Now they have Brian McCann and Josh Reddick in addition to Beltran. Per Brian McTaggart of MLB.com, here's how they could line up on Opening Day:

The only major changes I'd make are sliding Reddick over to his natural right field position, Gattis to left field and Beltran into the designated hitter spot.

That's where he belongs these days. Beltran was still a darn good center fielder when he played for the Astros in 2004, but age and mileage have taken a toll on his legs. The advanced metrics make it clear that he can't play even average defense as a right fielder.

Fair warning: Beltran's also not going to be the hitter he was the last time he was in Houston.

After he was acquired from the Kansas City Royals in a June trade, he boosted the Astros with a .926 OPS and 23 home runs in 90 regular-season games. He then posted an absurd 1.557 OPS and hit eight homers in leading the Astros to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. Asking him to do that again would be like asking Altuve to dunk on Hakeem Olajuwon.

But while numbers reminiscent of 2004 may not be in store, old age has only slowed Beltran's bat down so much.

He's put up an .830 OPS and hit 48 home runs over the last two seasons. Most of that damage came in 2016, when he had an .850 OPS and cranked 29 home runs in 151 games with the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers.

The Astros could have benefited from production like that at a number of different positions. As ESPN Stats & Info will vouch, DH was one of them:

Beltran's arrival should make for better fortunes at that position in 2017. And the news is nothing but good elsewhere too.

Reddick's arrival gives the Astros another bat for an outfield that, Springer aside, struggled offensively in 2016. McCann has been a more consistent hitter than the guy he's replacing behind the plate, Jason Castro. Full seasons from Bregman, a former No. 1 prospect, and Gurriel, formerly a Cuban superstar, could also yield impressive results.

At the least, Houston's offense is due for a major improvement from its place in the American League in 2016, in which it finished eighth in runs and ninth in OPS. As FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan highlighted, it could even be the best offense in the league as things stand now.

And the 2017 Astros should do more than just hit.

A defense that finished second to only the Chicago Cubs in defensive runs saved in 2016 is arguably just as good now as it was at the end of the season, if not better. And despite losing Pat Neshek in a salary-dump trade, the Astros have largely retained a bullpen that, by FanGraphs' calculation, led baseball in wins above replacement in 2016.

The only part of the team that looks like an Achilles heel is the starting rotation. It put up a 4.37 ERA without good peripherals in 2016. The only upgrade it's gotten this winter is Charlie Morton, a 33-year-old whose health and productivity have been easy-come, easy-go.

This is the part that makes me hesitant to buy into the early projections at FanGraphs, which have the Astros pegged as the AL's best team with a 2017 projection of 91 wins. Of course, there's also the fact the Astros are just about done with their offseason shopping while most other teams haven't even started theirs.

However, there is the possibility that the Astros will get bounce-back seasons from 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. There's also the possibility that Lance McCullers will stay healthy and dominate with his electric stuff—Castro, now with the Minnesota Twins, won't soon forget it.

There's also the possibility that the rotation is next in line for a major upgrade. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports has the latest on that:

According to Heyman, the Astros have their eyes on Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale and Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer. It could require taking Bregman out of the picture, but they have enough young talent to acquire either one of them. Even after dropping tens of millions on their offseason acquisitions to this point, they should also have the funds to take on Sale's or Archer's contract.

"We're going to have the resources to go out and sign some players," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow promised in October, via Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

The Astros will have nothing to complain about if they get Sale or Archer. They'll have taken a team that, though flawed, was good enough to win 84 games in 2016 and outfitted it with a lineup, rotation and bullpen worthy of a World Series chase.

This is unfinished business for both Beltran and the Astros. Beltran hasn't won a World Series in his 19-year career, and the Astros have played in one and won none in their 54-year history.

It's all too easy to imagine either party saying three magic words as soon as Saturday's deal was done: Let's do this.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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