The Cardinals have five days from the end of the World Series to decide whether to make their departing free agents a qualifying offer. Their most notable free agent is Carlos Beltran.
Carlos Beltran is 36 now, and he'll be turning 37 early in the 2014 season. Most players in their late 30's are in the midst of a steep decline, but you can catch the odd bargain by betting on good health and staving off decline another year.
The most recent and obvious example of both cases is Lance Berkman. In 2011, the Cardinals took a chance on a declining Lance Berkman, who had just finished an embarrassing half-season as a Yankee. Not only did they take a chance on a hitter who'd seemed to stop hitting, they announced they'd be playing an increasingly portly 35-year-old in right field, rather than at first base. Berkman had last appeared in the outfield in 2007.
Lance Berkman rewarded the Cardinals gamble and then some in 2011. He was appalling in the field, almost worth 2 wins below replacement value, but he hit like the Berkman of old, notching a .408 wOBA for the Cardinals and worth a total of 4.6 WAR.
After the 2011 World Series, the Cardinals doubled down on their bet, extending him for another year. This time, their faith was not rewarded. Berkman played only briefly in spring and was largely ineffective. He hit for a .354 wOBA over fewer than 100 PAs.
That's the essence of betting on older players. Sometimes, they'll surprise you. Sometimes, you'll get burnt.
Beltran is a somewhat similar case. Once an outstanding center fielder, Beltran has declined in the field. His one season UZR/150 declined to -18.7. While it's not reliable in that small a sample, it echoes what many people saw. A lot of balls fell into right field that a younger, spryer fielder might have caught. Beltran's arm still looks outstanding, though, most recently featured in a stellar play-at-the-plate assist, where he called off the weaker-armed Jon Jay and prevent a run from scoring.
That's a big caution flag. Beltran's defense isn't going to improve in his age 37 season. With Allen Craig sustaining a second major leg injury, Holliday showing limited range in left field, and Matt Adams continuing to eschew the ranks of jeans-models, the Cardinals are chock full of decent hitters on the far end of the defensive spectrum. If Beltran is going to be successful, he'll have to be successful in right field.
His offense has been pretty stable from last year to this year. In 2012, his wOBA was .359; in 2013, it was .355. His walk rate did drop substantially last year to 6.3%, far off his recent numbers and his career average. Any regression to his career norms in terms of walk rate will probably just make up for whatever he loses from age.
So, despite Carlos Beltran's eminent likability, let's be frank about his deficits. He's a declining defender who's still a legitimate offensive threat. His value tracks that decline. He had a bounceback year in 2011 and was worth 4.3 WAR for the Giants and Mets. For the Cardinals, he was worth 3.3 WAR in 2012 and 2.0 in 2013. Getting more or less what we got out of him this year seems like our best-case scenario.
That's probably worth a qualified offer, but not much more. By an absolute $/WAR measure, it may not really make sense, although some folks are calculating the value of a single win above replacement as closer to $7M now.
Beltran is really in the club-friendly range of the new qualified offer rule. Beltran is probably just worth $14M, but he may not provide much value beyond that amount. If the Cardinals put in a qualified offer, a lot of teams that might otherwise be interested in Beltran might withdraw from the bidding, because Beltran won't be worth the loss of a draft pick. Beltran could still decline the offer, but would run a serious risk that he would find few teams willing to give up more than $14m and a draft pick.
What are the parallels for Beltran's value on the open market? Well, you don't have to look too far. After his rebound season in 2011, he got a 2 year, $26M contract. Even with contractual inflation since then, I think Beltran's overall value has decline some. Now he's entering his age 37 season, not his age 35 season. While his production has been mostly consistent, he has not equaled his 2011 numbers. Of course, his outstanding 2011 followed a 2010 lost to injury and ineffectiveness, so take that comparison with a grain or so of salt.
The other thing to consider is Beltran's long-denied quest for a World Series ring. Beltran played much of the peak of his career with the Royals, who never though hard about going to the postseason. He had glimpses of the postseason in a short stint as an Astro, then with the briefly-good Mets. But since the Mets fell into dysfunction, Beltran lost much of the rest of his peak years without hope of reaching the World Series.
He has just returned from his first World Series ever, albeit without a ring. The St. Louis Cardinals seem like as good a candidate as any club to appear in the 2014 World Series. I don't see a lot of clubs with serious World Series chances lining up to pay more money to Carlos Beltran.
Unless Beltran strongly feels that his body can no longer handle full time outfield duties, I think he stays in St. Louis. If he wants time to rest his body without being out of the lineup, he could consider an AL contender like Detroit, which seems to have a corner outfield opening and could let him DH occasionally.