Adrian Beltre played just one season with the Red Sox, but it was a good one. He was among the top third basemen in baseball in 2010. He sported a .298 true average, made the American League All-Star team and won a Silver Slugger. He was also a Gold Glove candidate.
Beltre’s 2010 was a breakthrough after five middling seasons in Seattle. He emerged as a top-tier player who was a strong fielder and could hit for power. He was a legitimate star on a mediocre team lacking in star power (or, according to Tom Werner, sexiness). An impending free agent, Beltre positioned himself for a nice payday in the offseason.
It seemed clear the Sox wouldn’t be the ones to pay him. Beltre was 31 years old and, like many players before him, excelled in a contract year. The Red Sox would receive two compensation picks if he signed elsewhere. Letting Beltre, who was not a lock to match his 2010 numbers again, walk in exchange for a pair of picks in what was expected to be a deep draft looked like the obvious choice.
So that’s what the Sox did. Beltre signed a five-year, $96 million deal with the Rangers. The Red Sox moved Kevin Youkilis to third and traded for All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Boston later used its compensation picks to draft outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and catcher Blake Swihart, both of whom had the makings of top prospects. The Red Sox were World Series favorites and their future was solidified.
The Red Sox lost a player whose production hardly wavered over the duration of his next contract — in fact, Beltre has been one of the best third basemen in baseball over that span — and the Sox in return were one of the worst teams at third base.
But did they make the right decision?
Hindsight is a funny thing. We as writers and fans use it as a tool to reflect on a team’s past decisions. In most cases the answer is pretty explicit. However, in this situation hindsight paints a fuzzy picture even five years later. On one end, the Sox lost a player whose production hardly wavered over the duration of his next contract — in fact, Beltre has been one of the best third basemen in baseball over that span — and the Sox in return were one of the worst teams at third base.
But by moving on Boston has acquired a pair of young players with the potential to be mainstays for the coming years. Bradley is one of the most exciting outfielders the team has produced in recent memory, and despite inconsistencies has shown he can be a dangerous hitter when hot. Swihart came into 2015 as the team’s top prospect and made the most of his opportunity in the majors this season. Their development is crucial given their role in the Beltre decision.
Texas is out of the postseason and Beltre’s contract is up, which makes it an appropriate time to reflect on how this move worked out for the Red Sox. There’s plenty still to be determined, but also enough evidence available to make the picture a little clearer.
Let’s start with Beltre. He slashed .309/.358/.514 from 2011-15 and with a solid 24.2 WARP in that time. He was a three-time All-Star, won a pair of Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers and in 2012 was third in the AL MVP voting. Simply put, the Rangers, who made the postseason three of those five years, got more than their money’s worth out of Beltre.
As for the Red Sox? They’ve gone through three starting third basemen — Youkilis, Will Middlebrooks and Pablo Sandoval — in the past five years, with a few part-timers sprinkled in, and none of their numbers comes close to what Beltre has accomplished. Boston was 21st in wOBA over that time and is now locked in a regrettable contract at the position thanks to Sandoval. The Sox seemingly have no better answers.
Don’t believe it’s been that bad? Here’s how it’s looked year by year.
Adrian Beltre: 124 games; .304 TAv; .381 wOBA; 4.6 WARP
Kevin Youkilis: 120 games; .287 TAv; .366 wOBA; 2.6 WARP
This one is actually pretty close. Both players had All-Star-caliber seasons with the offensive numbers ending up nearly identical. At this point it looks like not re-signing Beltre was the right decision. The Red Sox made big acquisitions at other spots, got their two picks and hardly had a drop-off at third in Beltre’s absence. So far, so good.
Adrian Beltre: 156 games; .322 TAv; .388 wOBA; 5.7 WARP
Kevin Youkilis: 42 games; .247 TAv; .328 wOBA (2012 total); -0.1 WARP
Will Middlebrooks: 75 games; .279 TAv; .357 wOBA; 1.8 WARP
Youkilis had a brief and forgettable stint with the Bobby Valentine-led Sox before being traded to the White Sox in June. But no need to worry. Boston called up Will Middlebrooks and the rookie had a promising campaign before a wrist injury cut it short. Meanwhile, Beltre was having what would be his best season over the course of the deal. Still, Middlebrooks’ emergence continued to make the Red Sox look smart.
Adrian Beltre: 161 games; .312 TAv; .379 wOBA; 5.7 WARP
Will Middlebrooks: 94 games; .240 TAv; .300 wOBA; 0.8 WARP
This is where the discrepancy starts to show. Beltre continued to produce at an elite level, while Middlebrooks struggled in his second season, battling both injury and poor play. The Sox got a bulk of the season out of Middlebrooks, while Jose Iglesias, Xander Bogaerts, Pedro Ciriaco and Brandon Snyder all saw time at third as well. It was too early to say Middlebrooks wasn’t the long-term solution at third by this point, but it certainly wasn’t looking good.
Adrian Beltre: 148 games; .320 TAv; .380 wOBA; 4.9 WARP
Will Middlebrooks: 63 games; .188 TAv; .238 wOBA; -1.2 WARP
Xander Bogaerts: 44 games at third; .247 TAv; .294 wOBA; 0.7 WARP
Brock Holt: 39 games at third; .261 TAv; .317 wOBA; 1.6 WARP
This one is complicated from a Red Sox perspective, but nothing short of disastrous. Middlebrooks spent more of the season on the disabled list than actually playing. That opened up third base for Xander Bogaerts, who had an ugly 44-game stint at third before going back to shortstop, and Brock Holt. Needless to say no one in Boston could come close to Beltre’s 2014 production, which resulted in another All-Star selection.
Adrian Beltre: 143 games; .278 TAv; .337 wOBA; 3.3 WARP
Pablo Sandoval: 126 games; .229 TAv; .288 wOBA; -1.4 WARP
This was arguably the worst result of letting Beltre walk. In need of a viable third baseman, the Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval to a five-year, $95 million contract, a deal nearly identical to Beltre’s after 2010. The result has been far, far worse. Sandoval had the worst season of any qualified third baseman in baseball, both from an offensive and defensive standpoint. Beltre’s 2015 was a drop-off from the previous four seasons, but far from a disappointment as he was still one of the most valuable third basemen in the game. Oh yeah, and, barring a miracle, Boston still has four more years of Sandoval.
The Red Sox would’ve been better off with Beltre over any other third baseman they’ve used over the last five years, and it would’ve come at a fair price. That’s evident, but the value of the return is still to be determined.
Boston got two prospects out of Beltre, and both have developed into major leaguers. Bradley is a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder who can’t consistently hit big league pitching. He had a nightmare rookie season at the plate in 2014, and spent most of last season in Triple-A Pawtucket before getting called up permanently in August. He finished 2015 with a .280 TAv in 255 plate appearances and was one of the team’s best hitters over the last six weeks of the season, a sizeable improvement from the year before that gives him a legitimate shot at a starting job next season.
Swihart has the potential to be a star. Injuries to Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan forced the Sox to call him up earlier than expected this season, but he improved steadily as the year went on, establishing himself as a serviceable catcher with a solid bat. (He finished 12th among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances with a .312 wOBA.) His development more than anything else could be the difference between whether or not losing Beltre was worth it.
Swihart’s future with the Red Sox, however, is uncertain with Vazquez expected to be ready for next season. Swihart could be a trade chip, or he could be forced to earn the spot over Vazquez, who was the odds-on favorite to be the team’s starting catcher this year before undergoing season-ending Tommy John surgery in the spring.
In a world where prospects are overrated and each year is unpredictable, it’s often better to go with the safe bet. In hindsight, that’s exactly what Beltre would’ve been. The Red Sox have received little production at third over the last five years, all while Beltre has consistently been one of the game’s best. His presence would’ve made a difference as Boston stumbled to three last-place finishes.
The potential of both Swihart and Bradley is exciting, and they may be around far longer than Beltre would have. But Bradley, at best, is a bottom-of-the-order hitter with a spectacular glove. Swihart may become a star, or he may not. Worst of all, there may still be four more years of Sandoval.
Perhaps the future will swing the decision more in the Red Sox’s favor, but unless both Swihart and Bradley blossom, they would’ve been much better off with Beltre.
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