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Setting Expectations for the Core

In 2005, the Cardinals were coming off back-to-back 100 win seasons but had seen two important players leave - one via free agency, one via retirement. We'll come back to that later. The replacement for those outfielders was, in part, Juan Encarnacion signed to a three year, $15 million deal in December of 2005. Encarnacion was coming off of what would ultimately be his career's best full season offensive performance. That high water mark was just 18 points of wOBA better than the league average but the signing was billed as a/the key offseason acquisition. Fans did not rejoice.

In 2006, Tony LaRussa infamously called Juan Encarnacion a "core guy". The remark was met with open derision about how important he was to the team. Still very early in the contract, the continued selling of Encarnacion by the front office and coaching staff in ways that were difficult for fans to believe tainted the relationship between those fans and the player.

The expectations were too high. Encarnacion was a role player and not a great one at that. He ended his career with a nearly league average offense record, averaged over 140 games a year from 1999-2006 and was a bit below average in the corner outfield position. He was certainly above replacement level and the Cardinals were not paying him an exorbitant salary but the "core" characterization was a poor one.

The invectives and distaste for that deal and that player which coalesced prior to his career ending injury were, on balance, outsized in relation to the factual evidence of his cost and production. While all of the vitriol cannot be attributed to a single factor, the inability of the front office to manage the fan's expectations undoubtedly played a role. There was a sense that the club was trying to obfuscate what was an obviously mediocre signing. That did not go over well.

It certainly didn't help that Encarnacion was being asked to replace two players who were generally beloved by fans. Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker were members of the best Cardinals' teams of the 2000s. Sanders' laidback attitude and casual demeanor were endearing. Larry Walker was a star in Colorado and a mid-season acquisition to augment an already excellent team. Both players were dealing with injuries at this stage in their careers but were able to be productive when they were on the field.

Walker 2004 178 11 .393 .280 .411 1.4
Sanders 2004 487 22 .315 .222 .341 2.5
Walker 2005 367 15 .384 .213 .382 2.6
Sanders 2005 329 21 .340 .275 .384 2.0
Encarnacion 2006 598 19 .317 .165 .320 0.9

It's easy to forget just how awesome Larry Walker was. The man has a legitimate case for the hall of fame and even an infirm Larry Walker was a formidable bat in the lineup. (For all that he played just a season and a half for the Cardinals, I have an irrational appreciation for his time here.) Sanders had a very up and down career and that continued in St. Louis with a good season followed by a great, though injury shortened, season. Between the difference in personalities and the far less potent bat, Encarnacion was put in an unenviable situation.

What makes the Carlos Beltran signing so great is that our expectations should be more Larry Walker than Juan Encarnacion. Beltran will likely have some injury questions around him but he's a legitimately excellent player. When I ran a quick Marcel-style weighted average from the last three years, I came up with a .369 wOBA projection. If you run Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection for Carlos Beltran through the wOBA formula you'll wind up with .364 (or thereabouts). Considering that the league average wOBA is much lower than it was in 2004/2005 (2011-.316, 2005-.326), Carlos Beltran's offensive relative to league average looks an awful lot like Larry Walker's 2005 relative to league average.

Carlos Beltran can't replace the production the team got from Albert Pujols in his prime. That's part of why the margins will be of increased importance in the post-Pujols era. Even if the Cardinals had signed Prince Fielder, it's unrealistic to expect 11 of the best years we've ever seen in a Cardinals uniform to be replicated. Carlos Beltran doesn't need to do that though. He's not Juan Encarnacion. He really can be a core player and he really has the capability to do that.

His once pristine defensive reputation has been scuffed by injuries and age. The player that averaged 146 games over 10 years is probably a thing of the past. But Carlos Beltran still has something to offer baseball and he still has something to offer the Cardinals. Go ahead. It's okay to say it.

Carlos Beltran, core player.