- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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For the first time in nearly 10 years, the St. Louis Cardinals, in all likelihood, will enter a season without a first-round fantasy baseball pick on their roster.
Heck, they might not sport a second- or third-rounder, either, though the highest-ranking player currently on their roster -- at least going by my rankings -- Matt Holliday (44th), might actually have hope of returning to the top 25, a tier in which he resided annually from 2006-10.
The reason: the Cardinals' smart move to add free agent outfielder Carlos Beltran, signed to a two-year, $26 million deal on Thursday, as they look to replace some of the production lost when Albert Pujols signed with the Los Angeles Angels. Beltran, while not Pujols, provides an underrated punch for both the Cardinals and fantasy owners, slotting as the team's new No. 2 hitter and probable right fielder.
If that doesn't seem like much to you, consider this: In 2011, the Cardinals, who most frequently had Jon Jay (86 starts) and Ryan Theriot (87) occupying their top two lineup spots, managed a .322 on-base percentage between their Nos. 1 and 2 hitters, three points beneath the major league average. That's a prime explanation as to why Pujols, the team's usual No. 3 hitter, managed the 18th-most RBIs in baseball (99), despite managing the 10th-most total bases (313).
Now look at who the Cardinals will have at those two spots next season:
Rafael Furcal, the probable leadoff man, has a .348 lifetime on-base percentage (.345 the past four seasons combined) and has walked in at least 9 percent of his plate appearances in six of his past eight seasons. Yes, his 2011 was a poor one -- .298 on-base, 7.8 percent walk rate -- but his track record in the department is at least somewhat more encouraging than Theriot's.
Beltran, the new No. 2 hitter, has a .361 lifetime on-base percentage and managed a .385 mark last season, 14th among qualified hitters, and he has walked in 12.8 percent of his plate appearances the past six seasons combined.
It's for that reason that -- despite the Cardinals' critics spewing claims that their offense will disappear into oblivion post-Pujols -- fantasy owners shouldn't be so hasty to discount an underrated, albeit aging, Beltran-Holliday-Lance Berkman heart of the lineup. Runs and RBIs might not be quite the problem that people expect, and despite each of the team's top four hitters beginning 2012 age 32 or older, there might yet be some value to be had.
And what of Beltran himself?
As with Holliday, Berkman and even Furcal, injury risk should be your primary concern. All four players are entering the season at advanced ages, and Beltran will turn 35 before the 2012 season even hits the quarter pole. He did manage to stay mostly healthy last year but did make a disabled-list trip; he has now made one in each of the past three seasons, and in four of the past five. Knee issues during his latter days with the New York Mets could ultimately shorten his career, which might explain why he scored merely a two-year deal instead of something longer.
Plan on something between 126 games -- his average number per year during his previous seven-year contract -- and 142 -- the number he played in 2011 -- and you shouldn't be disappointed. ESPN Stats & Information's Mark Simon points out some extremely relevant statistics regarding Beltran: Beltran managed a career high in OPS+ (OPS adjusted for ballpark, per Baseball-Reference.com) in 2011, and he finished seventh in the National League in wOBA (weighted on-base), which was only one spot lower than he finished in the category in 2006, one of his best years.
Steals are no longer Beltran's game, as five might be about his limit, but there's no reason he can't hit 20-plus homers, bat close to .300 and manage a healthy number of runs scored batting ahead of players such as Holliday and Berkman. It's for that reason that he moves up to 130th in my rankings -- 37th among outfielders, right behind Berkman -- with the move to St. Louis.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can email him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
8hEthan Sherwood Strauss