- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- The 2011 trade deadline market is long on middle relievers, serviceable right-handed outfield bats (that means you, Josh Willingham and Ryan Ludwick), and enough rumors, breathless speculation and inane tweets to crash a fleet of hard drives.
But the odds of a contending team landing that one immediate “difference-making’’ player were never very high. To put it in perspective, there’s almost as good a chance that the city of Pittsburgh will celebrate Jerry Meals Day at some point during the 2011 calendar year.
In the absence of a Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira or Matt Holliday, veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran is the player who best fits the description this summer. He’s 34 years old and his knees are rustier than your old red wagon, but the guy can still rake.
Several weeks of Beltran-related intrigue finally came to fruition Wednesday. On an eventful day for Major League Baseball, Angels starter Ervin Santana threw a no-hitter, Cleveland posted a 1-0-5 linescore, the Mariners actually won a game, Meals admitted he blew it on that 19th-inning play at the plate at Turner Field, the Cardinals gift wrapped 24-year-old outfielder Colby Rasmus to Toronto and baseball’s defending champions made it abundantly clear they want to repeat in 2011.
The San Francisco Giants reached agreement on a deal to send top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to the New York Mets for Beltran and financial considerations, and by Wednesday evening, Beltran reportedly was winging his way from Cincinnati to Philadelphia to join manager Bruce Bochy’s club and take his free-agent showcase to the next level.
When the deal is official, Beltran is expected to play right field and bat third for the Giants, who improved their record to 60-44 with a 2-1 win over the Phillies on Wednesday.
Just a hunch, but the Citizens Bank Park crowd might be preoccupied enough with Beltran to tone down the Cody Ross abuse for a night.
Beltran will fill a mega-void in the middle of the order for the Giants, who rank 15th in the National League with 373 runs scored, and are among the bottom five in the league in hits, home runs and total bases. If he doesn’t embody what they need, he certainly comes close.
“Carlos has all the tools you look for in a player,’’ Bochy said before Matt Cain pitched the Giants to victory over Cole Hamels and the Phillies. “He’s a great defender, a switch-hitter and can run. Great instincts for the game. Plays the game hard. Plays the game right. This guy is a tremendous all-around player. That’s why he’s made All-Star teams and won Gold Gloves and signed big contracts. He’s one of the elite players in the game.’’
Bochy was managing in San Diego in the summer of 2004 when the Astros acquired Beltran from Kansas City and turned him loose to cut a swath through NL pitching. Beltran hit 23 home runs in 90 games with Houston, then batted .435 with eight homers in October as the Astros fell a game short of the World Series. His one-man offensive siege laid the groundwork for his seven-year, $119 million deal with the Mets.
Compared to, say, Alfonso Soriano or Barry Zito, who’ve been vilified for their performances on nine-figure deals, Beltran consistently produced for the Mets when he wasn’t injured. He made five All-Star teams and won three Gold Gloves and two Silver Slugger awards during his tenure in New York. But Mets fans will always remember that called third strike against Adam Wainwright to end the 2006 NL Championship Series. Hey, who said life was fair?
An American League scout in Philadelphia for the Giants-Phillies series said he has always thought of Beltran as a “reluctant star.’’ But while Beltran might not be much for swagger or courting the media, his internal compass can kick into overdrive when he’s on the big stage. Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt, Beltran’s former teammate in Kansas City, thinks the heat of a pennant race is going to bring out the best in his old friend.
For what it’s worth, Beltran is a career .310 hitter in 87 career at-bats at AT&T Park, with no homers, two triples and a whopping 11 doubles. He has the potential to be a gap-seeking missile by San Francisco Bay.
“He has a lot of pride in his game,’’ Affeldt said. “He’s not 37. He’s 34 and he wants to prove something. I think this is a good opportunity for him to hopefully replay what he did in Houston seven years ago. He definitely has the talent, the athleticism and the ability to jump-start a team.’’
It’s no secret in baseball circles that Giants general manager Brian Sabean has been focusing on upgrades at shortstop and catcher for a while. Miguel Tejada, on the disabled list with a lower abdominal strain, can still hit well enough to get by, but his lack of range was readily apparent in spring training. Mike Fontenot is a handy utility player, and rookie Brandon Crawford has promise, but they’re not going to make anyone forget Rich Aurilia.
The Giants also need help at catcher, where Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart are hitting a combined .220 with three home runs in 225 at-bats in place of the injured Buster Posey. Maybe catching is an item Sabean can address next month. After all, the Giants picked up Ross off waivers from Florida last August, and all he did was slug .686 in the postseason and win the NLCS Most Valuable Player award to become a magnet for boos in Philly.
The past few weeks couldn’t have been easy for Beltran, who’s had one foot out the door while numerous scouts have tracked his every move. Meanwhile, players and fans in San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Arlington, Texas, have lived through countless updates on his next destination. As the San Francisco players monitored the proceedings, they could only be sure that Sabean would try to make a trade a reality if humanly possible.
“It’s no secret with Brian. When the trade deadline comes around, he usually wheels and deals,’’ outfielder Aaron Rowand said. “Over the years, guys know that he’s going to make moves to try to make the team better.’’
When Sabean visited the White House with the defending champions this week, he probably didn’t have any advice to pass along to President Barack Obama to resolve that nettlesome debt-ceiling debate. And chances are he might not be able to spell “Marc Rzepczynski’’ on the first, second or even third try.
But with four days left until the non-waiver trade deadline, Sabean has made his move, and now it’s up to the other contenders to try to counter. A pennant might be at stake.
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