Fred Wilpon dissed himself over the Carlos Beltran deal. But, was he right?
By serving as the subject of a long-form article in The New Yorker on Monday, New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon sought to rehabilitate his and his team’s image. Hidden in the compelling story of his career, however, Wilpon slipped in just a few too many thoughts about his premier players. Clearly, such words will not improve the team’s public image, inspire the club, or increase the team’s value when it is at least partially sold. Despite this clear slip-up, fans may be intrigued by this rare opportunity to hear ownership’s view of particular players. Regarding Jose Reyes, David Wright, and Ike Davis, Wilpon’s comments were more harsh than insightful but ultimately appear to be on point. However, Carlos Beltran somewhat shockingly drew the harshest criticism of all. Wilpon’s disparaging remarks represent a gross failure to understand Beltran’s value.
In total, Wilpon’s comments amount to an admission that he regrets signing Beltran to a 7-year, $119 million deal after the 2005 season. He first referred to Beltran by mockingly reenacting Beltran’s infamous bases-loaded strikeout in Game Seven of the 2006 NLCS; as if that weren’t enough, this was his response to a question about whether the Mets might be cursed. With similar distaste, Wilpon describes Beltran as “sixty-five to seventy percent of what he was” at the time of the signing. Finally, he criticizes himself for paying Beltran “based on that one series”, referring ambiguously to either the NLDS or NLCS in 2004, in each of which Beltran posted an OPS over 1.500 for the Houston Astros. Though Wilpon does not, of course, make a full-fledged case against Beltran, these comments sufficiently demonstrate his misguided opinion.
First, Beltran’s infamous strikeout has always been a foolish excuse for the 2006 Mets’ NLCS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. If that strikeout had been a final flourish of futility for Beltran in the series, Wilpon might have had a case. However, Beltran, having batted .296/.387/.667 and belted four home runs, would have been an NLCS MVP candidate had the Mets pulled out the win. It is typical of sports media—and, apparently, sports ownership—to criticize the player who does not come through in the clutch. However, if one Met is to be blamed for the NLCS loss, Billy Wagner (3 G, 1 SV, 16.88 ERA), Steve Traschel (1 GS, 45.00 ERA), or any position player besides Carlos Delgado would make more sense. Ironically, if Beltran had not already performed so well throughout the series, he probably never would have had the at-bat that led to the criticism he received from Mets fans and ownership alike.
To denounce Beltran’s contract as a mistake is equally naïve. Wilpon’s self-deprecating comment here reflects blatant regret, but the truth is that Beltran completely held up his end of the deal. Using Wins Above Replacement (WAR), FanGraphs values Beltran’s performance to date at $119.9 million—already a touch over his total salary even as more than half a season remains. The one thing that would devalue Beltran’s production is the Mets’ futility during his contract. After all, wins generate more revenue for playoff-caliber teams than mediocre ones. Thus, while the Mets paid fair market value for Beltran, they likely struggled to recover his total earnings in revenue. However, this is far from Beltran’s fault. Rather, the culprits are those whose failures held the Mets back from contention in recent years, such as Luis Castillo, Jason Bay, Oliver Perez, and a particularly devastating slew of injuries to Jose Reyes, Johan Santana, Beltran himself, and still others. Without their combined contributions, Beltran had no chance to justify his contract from a revenue standpoint, but in isolation, he did exactly what his paychecks demanded.
Ultimately, the fact that Beltran is a shadow of his 29-year-old self is unsurprising and irrelevant. In fairness, Wilpon would be correct in that regard, but analyzing only the closing years of the contract ignores the phenomenal surplus value Beltran provided in his prime. It should come as no surprise that most of Beltran’s production came toward the beginning of his contract, from when he was 28 until he was 31. What may be harder to grasp is the amount of surplus value Beltran’s peak seasons provided. In his first season with the Mets, Beltran posted a disappointing 2.7 WAR, but he followed up with 21.0 WAR in the next three seasons—good for fifth in MLB during that span, trailing Grady Sizemore and David Wright by less than one win. Although few players can hope to break the $20 million-per-year salary threshold, this indisputably elite production was worth $86.4 million at market value. With these near-MVP-caliber seasons, made slightly more discreet than most by his defensive value, Beltran fulfilled most of his contractual expectations in those three phenomenal years. That his performance has dropped off over time does not change that fact.
In short, there are many decisions that the Mets have made in recent years that they likely wish they could take back. They could have picked up on warning signs on Oliver Perez and other free agents. They could have done a better job developing true contributors. They could have avoided investing with Madoff. Is it fair to criticize the Mets for all of these? Maybe not. Every club makes mistakes, especially in baseball operations. Carlos Beltran, however, was not one of them, and that the Mets’ owner fails to recognize that may help explain how the team has gone from first to worst.
Lance Gurewitz is currently a sophmore at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. You can read and discuss his baseball analysis and other sports musings in 140 characters or less by following @LanceWG42 on Twitter
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