The Seattle Mariners might have spent the past 365 days (OK, technically 390, since Franklin Gutierrez's acquisition happened Dec. 11, 2008) addressing the need to upgrade their defense, but on Monday, they officially let one of their best gloves get away as third baseman Adrian Beltre jumped to the Boston Red Sox.
Fortunately for the Mariners, they had already replaced him with another quality defender in Chone Figgins. That eases the sting as Beltre signed a one-year, guaranteed $10 million contract with the Red Sox. He'll have to pass a physical, which is generally a formality, but worth mentioning for a player who made two trips to the disabled list in 2009 and missed 49 games due to shoulder, groin and foot injuries.
Interestingly enough, it's Beltre's defense, not his bat, that might make the most significant contribution to the Red Sox. As Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information points out, Beltre's Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150) in 2009 was 21.0, second-best in baseball (according to Fangraphs.com), and he topped all third basemen in the category in both 2006 and 2009 and ranked second in 2008. The Red Sox as a team, by comparison, ranked second worst in UZR/150 by third basemen (-10.7) -- and that was with strong-in-reputation Mike Lowell manning the hot corner. This team also allowed the highest team BABIP (.320) in baseball and ninth highest on ground balls (.244), though it did surrender the second-fewest ground balls (40.9 percent of all batted balls).
In other words, if the Mike Cameron signing pleased you aspiring Daisuke Matsuzaka owners, the Beltre signing will comparably satisfy those of you targeting Clay Buchholz, the most ground-ball oriented of the team's starter hopefuls. The signings together, meanwhile, should be a real boon to the Red Sox's staff.
Speaking of Lowell, who has been the subject of trade talks all offseason, expect the Red Sox to only increase their efforts to swap him. The chances of him remaining in Boston and threatening Beltre's playing time are poor, and barring his landing in a great situation, Lowell might be a bust candidate wherever he goes.
As for Beltre's bat -- which is what most fantasy owners care about -- don't let your expectations get the best of you. He was a complete bust in his final campaign in Seattle, his second "walk year" of his career, and it couldn't have come in starker contrast to his first one, which was his career season in 2004. Beltre's OPS then was 1.017 (a career high) and in 2009 it was .683 (second worst only to his rookie 1998), but the more representative numbers are his per-year averages in Seattle: .265 BA, .316 OBP, .444 SLG, 21 HR, 74 RBIs, 74 R, 10 SB in 143 games.
Take into account his road numbers during his Mariners days -- .278 AVG/.327 OBP/.473 SLG, 22 HR, 88 RBIs, 77 R, 8 SB per 143 games -- and the fact that Fenway Park is a much more hitter-friendly ballpark than Safeco Field. While Fenway is not a homer haven, it's certainly more conducive to helping right-handed power hitters than left-handers, so there's even more reason for optimism. Beltre might very well be a .275-hitting, 25-homer performer at his best, and while he might not steal as often with the Red Sox, who tend to pick their spots on the basepaths, that's the kind of hitter who should ease his way into a healthy number of runs and RBIs (80-plus).
Expect Beltre to be drafted after the top 10 (and perhaps 12 or more) third basemen are off the board, but he's easily a candidate to have value in that top 10.
In other recent news
Chicago Cubs sign Marlon Byrd: Stop me if you've heard this one before -- Texas Rangers outfielder has career year, departs for "greener" pastures in Chicago. OK, a comparison to Milton Bradley is hardly fair, but just like Bradley a year ago, Byrd should qualify for a list of bust candidates for 2010 in a situation where he'll be hard-pressed to repeat or exceed his 2009 numbers. He's more likely than Bradley was to make it through a full season manning the Wrigley Field outfield unscathed, but he's also a player who in his three years with the Rangers managed .309/.375/.522 numbers at hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark, compared to .281/.328/.414 on the road. Switching to the weaker league and another hitter-friendly venue (Wrigley) should keep him useful, but fantasy owners can't reasonably count on him as more than a fifth-outfield type in mixed formats, perhaps a third or fourth in National League-only leagues.
San Francisco Giants sign Mark DeRosa: Interestingly enough, my initial reaction on the day DeRosa signed with the Giants was, "There's the new Rich Aurilia." DeRosa, obviously, is a more valuable player today than Aurilia was at the time he landed in San Francisco, but they both excel at two similar things: They both kill left-handers (.299/.368/.490 career line for DeRosa, .283/.340/.487 Aurilia) and they both can play all over the infield. Unfortunately, that still paints DeRosa as more utility type than regular upon whom fantasy owners can rely, meaning he's an ideal daily-matchups play and useful NL-only pick, but probably not the kind you can trust in mixed formats over a 26-week season. DeRosa's problem is that he generates most of his fantasy value in terms of home runs, RBIs and runs scored. Now he'll call AT&T Park, which suppresses power, his home, and he'll be joining a lineup that scored the fifth-fewest runs and had the worst team OPS (.699) in baseball last season. DeRosa will still be a draft-worthy asset, mainly because he's a multi-position qualifier (third base and outfield), but he's more useful plugging holes at the back end of your roster than playing a leading-man role.
Oakland Athletics retain Justin Duchscherer: Boom/bust pitcher, thy name is Justin Duchscherer. The right-hander was easily one of the best in the game for a four-month span in 2008, when he posted a 2.54 ERA that, if qualified, would have ranked him third in baseball. The other eight months (six in 2009, two in 2008)? Injuries kept him almost entirely off the diamond, including elbow surgery and clinical depression that cost him all of 2009. Duchscherer will get another chance to redeem himself in Oakland, and it's a move that makes sense for the Athletics' young rotation, one that's remarkably left-handed. He's expected to be fine for the start of spring training, though until he steps on a mound, it'll be impossible to know how much the surgery affected him. Fantasy owners probably shouldn't draft Duchscherer expecting better than a 3.00 ERA or 20 starts, if that many, meaning he's only a late-round roll of the dice, preferably only if spring reports are positive.
Arizona Diamondbacks sign Kelly Johnson: Fantasy owners might shy away from a player who has only once in his professional career ever topped 20 homers or 20 steals (and that was in 2001 in low Class A ball), not to mention is coming off a miserable 2009, but Johnson's addition shouldn't be outright discarded by NL-only owners. He's the leading candidate to be the Diamondbacks' everyday second baseman, he can still draw a walk and he's not a platoon worry, having managed a batting average greater than .300 versus left-handers in each of the past two seasons. Johnson also battled wrist problems for much of 2009, which might help explain his mediocre numbers. He'll wind up a middle-infield type in NL-only leagues, but certainly one capable of 15 homers, 10 steals and a .270s batting average if he's looking healthy in the spring.
New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies get bullpen help: These NL East rivals each bolstered their set-up corps in the past week, the Mets signing injury-prone Kelvim Escobar and the Phillies inking the flop-prone Danys Baez. Escobar -- if healthy -- should take over as the primary set-up man to Francisco Rodriguez, and Mets fans certainly are hoping he'll never be needed as a K-Rod fill-in. In Citi Field, Escobar might be able to help owners in deep NL-only leagues in ERA or WHIP, but he's not an ideal handcuff for those with shallow rosters (especially short benches).
Baez presumably takes over the Chan Ho Park role, which, if you remember during the postseason, was a primary set-up gig. Baez's strikeout rate (5.02 per nine) in his first year removed from Tommy John surgery was a career worst, but he also transformed into a ground-baller who probably shouldn't be adversely impacted by the hitter-friendly nature of Citizens Bank Park. Like Escobar, Baez is only a deep NL-only target -- and more because the Phillies' closer (Brad Lidge) has more risk of implosion -- but he's also more likely to have the higher ERA and WHIP.
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 e-mail him here.