What is Beltran Worth?

Even though the Royals haven't been completely eliminated from the division race, they're season is pretty much done.  Due to a significant lack of quality starting pitching and some injuries on offense, they face a very steep climb out of the AL Central cellar, which is saying something when you are 4 games behind the team that nearly broke the record for losses in a season last year.  So the rumor mill shopping Carlos Beltran, the only significant player they have to offer to a contender, has been turned on full tilt.

One of the rumors that intrigued me has Beltran going to San Diego along with third baseman Joe Randa in exchange for Sean Burroughs, Xavier Nady and another player although it's unclear who it would be.  Presumably it would be a lesser prospect. 

It was intriguing because Padre GM Kevin Towers has emphatically denied that Burroughs is going anywhere.  With good reason: the 23-year old has been pegged as a star player since his early days in the minors.  And he surely wouldn't be going anywhere for a player who is rumored to be a 2- or 3-month rental as Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, has been pretty emphatic that Beltran will test the market this winter regardless of which team trades for him.

Frankly, I couldn't see the appeal of the deal from the Padres side.  I saw lots of reasons why the Royals would love to do it - they'd get rid of Randa's contract while getting a younger, better and cheaper player to replace him in the line-up and on the field.  They'd also get a pretty good hitting outfielder/cornerman in Nady and another player to help replenish a farm system that doesn't look like it will produce much the next couple of years.

Sure, Beltran would look nice in the Padre outfield; his defense would be a huge benefit.  But what's to say that Petco won't affect him the same way it has affected the Padres.  It seems like a huge risk on the Padres part to trade so much for him.  It wasn't even a year ago they traded Oliver Perez and Jason Bay for Brian Giles and that was with a near guarantee that Giles would sign with the team.  Beltran offers no such guarantees.

I just couldn't see it.  In fact, I got so desperate, I asked Rob Neyer why the Padres would want the deal.  It should be noted that Neyer is a Royals fan and frequent amateur GM for the team in his columns.  His response: Burroughs has only 60 extra base hits in his major league career (970 at bats).  There's no guarantee he'll be a star, or even a good hitter.

Two questions immediately came to mind: 1) if there's no guarantee he'll become a good hitter, why would the Royals want him in exchange for the best player they've had in 20 years?, and 2) is the number of extra base hits an indicator of future performance?  Burroughs just turned 23, but what amounts to 36 extra base hits a season isn't all that good.

I think we can dismiss the first concern quite easily.  The Royals obviously do think Burroughs will be a good hitter.  Otherwise, they wouldn't target him.  And say what you will about the organization, they do a decent job identifying hitters.  Not super, mind you.  But they did pluck Angel Berroa - last year's Rookie of the Year - from the sabremetric A's in a similar trade in 2001 when everyone thought that Johnny Damon was the cat's pajamas.

So what about point #2.  Does Burroughs lack of power mean that there's a very good chance that he won't become a good major league hitter?  Rather than just talk off the top of my head, I decided it'd be a better idea to look at evidence.  There are a lot of people out there who think Joe Randa is a good hitting third baseman.  Joe Randa, Burroughs presumed replacement in this deal, wasn't even in the majors when he was Burroughs' age, much less had 60 extra base hits.  Maybe we should set the bar a little higher.

Last year, Burroughs had 40 extra base hits as a 22-year old.  A quick look at 22-year old third basemen in the live-ball era who had similar totals yields George Kell (37), Carlos Baerga (41), Ron Santo (41) and Bob Bailey (42).  OK, George Kell is in the Hall of Fame.  Ron Santo should be.  Carlos Baerga was an All-Star on the Hall of Fame track before he let off the field distractions derail his career.  Bob Bailey played for Pittsburgh and Montreal primarily in the 1960s and 70s and finished with 189 homers.  His best season was 1970 in which he hit 28 homers with 84 RBI and an OPS of 1.004 for an Expos team that finished 16 games under .500.  That sounds like a pretty good hitter to me. 

In fact, looking at the list of 22-year old third basemen who had more than 30 extra base hits is pretty impressive group: Dick Allen, Hank Blalock, Freddie Lindstrom, Travis Fryman, Scott Rolen, Ken Keltner, Aurelio Rodriguez, George Brett, Troy Glaus, Frankie Frisch, Jim Tabor, Carney Lansford, Eric Chavez, Adrian Beltre, Jim Ray Hart, Buddy Lewis, Ryne Sandberg, Larry Parrish, and Pie Traynor, along with the aforementioned five.  If you're counting at home, that's five Hall of Famers (Kell, Lindstrom, Brett, Frisch and Traynor), three more who should be (Santo, Allen and Sandberg) and eight others who have been All-Stars, a group that doesn't yet include Chavez or Beltre, who will be.  The only two on this list who didn't become stars are Rodriguez and Tabor. 

It's not just extra base hits where Burroughs measures up, either.  Using runs created per game for his young career so far, Burroughs (4.63) matches up well againt George Brett (4.78), Troy Glaus (4.67), Carlos Baerga (4.60), Gary Sheffield (4.51), Ron Santo (4.42), Ryne Sandberg (4.10), Buddy Bell (3.93), Robin Ventura (3.52), Aramis Ramirez (3.49), Geroge Kell (3.29) and Brooks Robinson (3.22).  Had his home parks been relatively neutral rather than pitcher friendly Qualcomm and Petco, Burroughs would rate even higher.

So while it's true that there is no guarantee that Burroughs will become a star, history indicates that the odds of him becoming a good-to-great hitter are very, very good.  Given their track record in trading for young hitters, it seems likely that the Royals probably know this.  As a fan of the Padres, I'm hoping Kevin Towers knows this too.  If he does end up making this deal and is not able sign Beltran this winter, it could rank as one of the worst trades in team history.  And for a team that has traded away Ozzie Smith, Roberto Alomar, Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield either just before their peak years or during, that's saying something.