Time catches up to us all, but Adrian Beltre seems to have secured a fairly sizable lead, leaving time a little further behind than for most 37-year-olds. Beltre debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the shadow of the Mark McGwire–Sammy Sosa home-run race during the 1998 season. Eighteen seasons later, the only players active during that season who’ve also recorded an appearance in this one are Carlos Beltran, Bartolo Colon, David Ortiz, A.J. Pierzynski, and Alex Rodriguez. Beltre was just 19 years old at that time and, after signing a two-year contract extension with the Texas Rangers worth $36 million, he’s in position to outlast all of them.
No discussion of what Beltre will do is complete without discussing what he has done. Beltre signed with the Dodgers at 15 years old for just $23,000 (improperly, as it turns out) and debuted in majors at age 19. At the time, Beltre was one of just four players (Ken Griffey, Edgar Renteria, and Ivan Rodriguez were the others) in the previous decade to record at least 200 plate appearances at age 19 or under. It would be more than a decade before any player would do it again, as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado both reached that mark in the 2012 season.
Since making his debut, Beltre has always been a good player. His 41.3 WAR figure through his age-30 season is identical to the mark produced by Derek Jeter through the same age. What has differentiated Beltre’s play over the last half-decade is his refusal to slow down and it has made him a surefire Hall of Famer. After Beltre’s contract with the Seattle Mariners ended, he was forced to re-establish his value with a one-year deal with the Red Sox. That one-year deal turned into a five-year deal with the Texas Rangers, including an option for this season that the Rangers happily exercised.
Over the last six seasons, Beltre has been worth roughly 34 wins above replacement, behind only Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Miguel Cabrera — and ahead of Joey Votto, Jose Bautista and Robinson Cano. Combining his age with a historical perspective, Beltre’s age-31-through-age-36 seasons by WAR rank 21st all-time. The only players ahead of Beltre not in the Hall of Fame are Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, and Pete Rose. He’s ahead of Ty Cobb, Willie Stargell, Ozzie Smith, and Joe DiMaggio, among many other great players.
How about those numbers in the context of third basemen? Here’s a collection of the best careers from 31 years old, until retirement.
Beltre already ranks among the top-50 position players all-time by WAR. He has received at least 477 plate appearance in every year for the past 17 years. If he can get 10 more wins over the next three years, he will have produced the fifth-highest WAR among third basemen ever — behind only Alex Rodriguez, Mike Schmidt, Eddie Matthews and Wade Boggs, moving past Brooks Robinson, Chipper Jones, and George Brett. Beltre was still productive last season, recording a 108 wRC+ to complement solid defense. That combination produced a 4.6 WAR, although it might have been inflated by half a win due to a single-season jump in his defensive numbers.
Beltre is still very good on defense, and the projections call for Beltre to record another 600 plate appearances, solidly above-average numbers on offense, and worth another four wins above replacement. Were Beltre to produce another of his typical seasons, he would have been a sought after commodity in a relatively weak free-agent market. Given his greatness over the years, a two-year deal for under $40 million looks like a bargain. To be worth that money on the free-agent market, he will need to produce just around four and a half wins, not a far cry from what he is already expected to do this year alone.
On a surface level, the deal looks like a good one. Beltre is still playing at a high level. He is a future Hall of Famer, and he is likely to finish his career as a Ranger. While certainly not a definitive prognosticator, we can look at past players who performed at a high level like Beltre, and see how they performed at ages 38 and 39, like Beltre will be in 2017 and 2018.
For the purposes of this analysis, I assumed that Beltre will meet his projections for the season, giving him 14.3 WAR collectively between his age-35 and age-37 seasons. I looked at historical players who were within three wins above replacement in either direction of Beltre and within 20% of Beltre’s expected plate appearances. All of the players happened to be roughly within two wins of Beltre’s projected 2016 statistics. The search criteria produced 12 players total. I removed Andres Galarraga from the group as he was undergoing treatment for cancer during all of what would have been his age-38 season.
This is the group from age-35 through age-37:
Beltre fits in very well with this group, sitting slightly below the average hitting, but above the average on the fielding side. Five of the players included in that table are already in the Hall of Fame — with Chipper Jones likely to join that group soon. Several other players have good cases, as well. Here’s how those players performed over the next two seasons at ages 38 and 39.
If we take for granted that 4.5 WAR is the mark to hit, we see that only four of 11 players have reached it. Brooks Robinson fell off a cliff and even the great Mike Schmidt had trouble in his final season. If Beltre hits the average, at 3.3 WAR, he will be worth around $28 million, not a far cry from the $36 million he’ll actually receive. Using the typical aging curve, a four-win season this year would put Beltre in line for 5.8 WAR over the next two years and equate to around $50 million in value given a current cost of $8 million per win and assuming 5% inflation.
While there is some chance that Beltre could provide little in a couple years, a big-market club like the Rangers signing a franchise player to a reasonable deal is not a contract worth complaining about. The Dodgers gave up just $23,000 to ink Beltre to his first contract. At the end of 2018, Beltre will have received more than $200 million in career earnings, and he will have earned every penny.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.