Late last night, the St. Louis Cardinals signed 34-year-old free agent outfielder Carlos Beltran to a two-year, $26 million deal. This shows that the Cardinals have no intention of folding in 2012 after losing superstar Albert Pujols. Indeed, the Cardinals are alive and well.
First of all, this takes a little sting out of losing Pujols. In my last article, I speculated that Beltran was the third-ranked potential free agent for St. Louis (behind Prince Fielder and either Mark Trumbo or Kendrys Morales). Specifically, he was probably the best free agent outfielder available this year. He had a great comeback season last year, hitting .300 with 22 home runs and 84 RBI. Last year, Beltran was an All-Star, and the Mets traded him after 94 games to the contending Giants. Losing no steam, Beltran posted a .920 OPS in San Francisco.
To put Beltran's season in perspective in comparison to current Cardinal players, his stats last year rank slightly behind Lance Berkman, who hit .301 with 31 home runs and 94 RBI, and ahead of Matt Holliday, who hit .296 with 22 home runs and 75 RBI.
Caveat emptor! Beltran can be one of the best players in baseball—when he's healthy. The Mets obviously became risk averse to him, after watching him play in only 81 and 64 games in 2009 and 2010 respectively. If Beltran can stay on the field, Cardinals fans should be very happy with his production over the two-year contract.
Second, with the signing of Beltran, it looks like the Cardinals plan on moving Berkman to first base for 2012. This makes a lot of sense in the short term. Although, both Beltran and Berkman are in their mid-30s, so first base still remains a long-term question mark.
Third, it looks like the Cardinals intend to use Rafael Furcal as their leadoff hitter. I'm not thrilled about this, but he's the most logical choice out of Cardinal players. Let's take a look at the projected lineup.
Fourth, speaking of the lineup, where should everyone hit now? Beltran used to have some serious wheels, and his late-20s version would have made a potent leadoff guy in the 2012 Cardinals lineup. As is, he's a middle-of-the-lineup hitter. But where? You can get into a great debate here between Holliday, Berkman and Beltran in the 3-4-5 spots.
Personally I like Beltran in the five spot where he can swing a little more freely. Berkman has a career .409 on-base percentage (OBP) which I think makes him a nice choice for Pujols' old spot, third in the order. Holliday is right behind with a .388 OBP. However, Berkman is also a switch hitter, so you could put him in between the other two who hit right-handed to keep the opponent's bullpen churning in the late innings.
OK, here's the opening day lineup so far:
1. Furcal - SS
2. Jay - CF
3. Berkman - 1B
4. Holliday - LF
5. Beltran - RF
6. Freese - 3B
7. Molina - C
8. Daniel Descalso - 2B
Honestly, I think that looks pretty solid. A few things to watch for are Furcal's ability to get on base and steal. I think he has little gas left in the tank, but I hope I'm wrong. Also, if Beltran plays Opening Day in center field, rejoice. This is a great indication that he's 100 percent. Back in the day, Beltran was one of the best center fielders in baseball offensively, and defensively he won three Gold Gloves from 2006-2008. However, he's slower, nicked up, and will probably play a lot of right field. Still, the Cardinals need him to be comfortable in center as Allan Craig returns.
Finally, I wanted to mention Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals posted the 10th-best run differential in baseball last year: 762 runs scored against 692 runs allowed. Obviously the Cardinals' runs scored in 2012 looks to go down without Pujols; but that defect is mitigated by Beltran. At the same time, with Wainwright back they should give up fewer than 692 all other things being equal. So they should be nearly as competitive as last year.
Any pitching staff with Chris Carpenter and Wainwright—along with coach Dave Duncan in the dugout—is something to be taken seriously.