Commentary

The case for a Carlos Beltran switch

Where in the outfield will the soon-to-be 34-year-old be less prone to injury?

Updated: November 17, 2010, 1:12 PM ET
By Matt Meyers | ESPN The Magazine

With much fanfare, the New York Mets finally have their new front office in place. And pretty soon they will have a new manager as well. Once all of that's settled, it will finally come time for Sandy Alderson and Co. to begin figuring out how to best utilize their personnel. And of the Mets' core players, none has a more uncertain status than center fielder Carlos Beltran.

Some say he's soft, and that the Mets should trade him for whatever they can get.

Some say his well-rounded game is underappreciated, and the Mets should just let him be.

And then there are those who say the Mets should keep him, but move him to right field because osteoarthritis in his knee has sapped his range.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Beltran
Andrew Burton/Getty ImagesIt may be time for Beltran to slide out of CF in Queens.

Assuming the Mets decide to hold on to the five-time All-Star, a move to right field should certainly be considered, particularly with the emergence of Angel Pagan as an offensive and defensive force in center. And when Alderson meets with Beltran face-to-face on Saturday in Puerto Rico, one has to imagine that the subject of his 2011 position will come up.

From a medical perspective, a position switch makes sense. Beltran will be 34 in April, and he missed the first half of last season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to clean out arthritis in his right knee. And anyone who watched the Mets after the All-Star break could see that his gait just wasn't as smooth, and he seemed to labor when chasing fly balls. It's possible that after a restful offseason the three-time Gold Glove winner will be back to normal. But based on the condition of his knee, that seems unlikely.

"When you have a guy with osteoarthritis, they essentially have deterioration of articular cartilage, which is on the edge of the bone," said Dr. Brian Sennett, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. "As that becomes worn down, bones see more stress. The less stress there is, the better off Beltran will be."

Center field calls for far more running than right or left field, which means that Beltran's knee will be subject to far more stress if he stays in center. In other words, even if symptoms of arthritis aren't as visible as they were last summer, his knee is still slowly deteriorating the more he runs. And this condition isn't going anywhere.

"When we do arthroscopic surgery on an arthritic knee, we're never curing it," Sennett said. "We're cleaning up debris on anything loose, but we're not resurfacing it. You're always hoping people don't reaggravate it."

Of course, there is another factor to consider. Center fielders have the luxury of knowing that they have first dibs on any ball they can get to, and there is always plenty of room in the gaps for them to slow down after a full sprint. Corner outfielders, on the other hand, have to deal with the wall, tarp and fans down the line. And unlike their counterparts in center, they often have to stop short when sprinting for fly balls to avoid running full speed into the wall, which can be hazardous. While Sennett acknowledged that the risk of a catastrophic knee injury is probably greater in right or left field for that reason, the nature of Beltran's condition is such that minimizing stress is the biggest concern.

This wouldn't be an issue for most clubs, as quality center fielders are hard to find. But the Mets actually have two players more than capable of manning the position. Pagan boasted a UZR of 7.9 in just 94 games as a center fielder in 2010, and was also above-average as measured by other defensive metrics such as total zone and defensive runs saved. While most statheads will say that it's folly to rely on a single season of data when looking at fielding metrics, this wasn't a fluke. For his career, Pagan has a UZR of 8.6 per 150 games in center. Among center field qualifiers in 2010, only Michael Bourn (17.6), Marlon Byrd (9.3), and Julio Borbon (8.9) were better.

Of course, none of this analysis addresses the elephant in the room, Beltran's agent, Scott Boras. Beltran will be a free agent next offseason and Boras surely realizes that his client's value is far greater as a center fielder. However, his value would plummet if he's injured. And for the long-term good of the Mets and Beltran, it would behoove everyone involved to put him in right, with Pagan in center.

"As good of a defender as Beltran is, I think everyone would say they got him for his bat more than his glove," Sennett said. "A guy who can play 150 in right is more valuable than a guy who can play 80 games in center."

This is one doc the Mets should listen to.

Matt Meyers is an associate editor for ESPN The Magazine.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES