After losing Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals signed Carlos Beltran to what turned out to be the perfect contract. They needed someone to replace some of Pujols’s offense for some of Pujols’s money; they needed to keep their medium-term options open; they needed to leave space on the payroll for Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, and all the other homegrown starters whose development made it possible to offer Pujols an enormous contract in the first place.
The Cardinals traded a fair amount of risk for that flexibility—the risk that Beltran, through injuries or age, would create a lot of short-term dead weight on the payroll—and so far they haven’t had to deal with any of it. In 268 games, about as many as they could have expected Beltran to play through the end of the contract, he’s hit even better than his career averages would suggest. The mix of talents that made him so dynamic 10 years ago has mostly settled at the bottom of the glass, but the Cardinals have gotten something like six wins out of the deal anyway.
This was a really good contract before Carlos Beltran played any of those 268 games; the Cardinals matched a risk they could afford to take with a return they needed to compete. Beltran’s performance has made it a perfect contract, though, and perfect contracts are dangerous.
Perfect contracts are inherently unstable, because the baseball universe tends toward minor disappointment. Everyone is eventually signed to his level of incompetence.
The Cardinals very nearly had the perfect excuse to avoid all that, in Oscar Taveras, and even when he was playing the Beltran question consumed people. Think about that: On a team with Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Oscar Taveras, and Matt Adams, giving Carlos Beltran a qualifying offer and a firm handshake still wasn’t everyone’s preferred option.
Even if Beltran weren’t a free agent—maybe especially if he weren’t a free agent, and the perfect contract couldn’t cloud our judgment—he’d be an odd fit on a team that has combined Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso to form a shortstop who hits .224/.283/.305 and is an average defender.
But he is a free agent, and other teams (without Matt Adams or Oscar Taveras) will probably take a chance on him. Ultimately I bet that sends him elsewhere, but I wouldn’t be surprised if his exit follows some not-at-all-obligatory negotiation.
Because he’s a great player, and a personable guy. And because the thing about perfect contracts is that the urge to screw them up eventually becomes almost unbearable.