Bring Back Beltre!

The best Red Sox third baseman of this millennium declined his player option on Wednesday and will become a free agent. Adrian Beltre walked away from a guaranteed $10 million, believing he can get more on the free agent market. Theo Epstein has said publicly that while he wants to bring Beltre back, he also respects the third baseman’s right to exercise free agency, something players “work long and hard to get,” according to comments made on October 3. Beltre has yet to say whether Boston is a place in which he’d like to play again, but if the Red Sox are smart they’ll do everything they can to convince him that it is. And that means paying a lot. Look at the numbers: he’s worth it.

Adrian Beltre was the best offensive third baseman the Red Sox have had in at least 10 years (a 10-year stretch in which the Red Sox went to the playoffs six times and won two World Series, the best such stretch since their four World Series titles from 1912-1918). His batting average (.321) has only been topped twice- Bill Mueller in 2003 (.326) and Mike Lowell in 2007 (.324). Bill Mueller was better in all three of his years at getting on base (.377 average from 2003-2005), but no third baseman since 2001 hit as hard as Beltre did in 2010 (.553 slugging, which measures hitting power) or hit as many doubles (49). Only Lowell in 2007 hit more RBIs (120) than Beltre did in 2010 (102), but NO third baseman since 2001 has hit more home runs (28). In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to Butch Hobson in 1977 to find a Red Sox third baseman who hit more home runs (30). Beltre had pop in his bat and a swing that at times seemed tailor-made for Fenway Park. When he swung the bat he usually fell to his knees, but the ball usually towered over left field.

Defensively, Beltre is slightly weaker, but not significantly. Yes, his 19 errors were the most since Shea Hillenbrand threw the ball away 23 times in 2002. But his fielding percentage compares far more favorably to the other three primary third basemen since 2001 (Hillenbrand, Mueller, Lowell). His fielding percentage of .957 puts him higher than either Mueller (.955 average over three years) or Hillenbrand (.947 from 2001-2002, plus 29 games in 2003), though Lowell was a better-fielding third baseman. He might not be an amazing defensive third baseman, but he is good enough for the offensively driven Red Sox.

Beyond the fact that he was the best third baseman the Red Sox have seen in at least a decade, Beltre should get his money because he was Boston’s biggest offensive contributor in 2010. He led the team in hits (189), doubles, total bases (326) and batting average, and he tied David Ortiz for most RBIs. And his power stats (slugging and OPS) are better than any hitter except Kevin Youkilis, who played in almost one-third less of a season (52 games). He was also the best late-inning hitter of any player other than Youkilis or Victor Martinez, who only played in 120 games.

So, Red Sox: pay him whatever he wants, but bring him back! A quick look at the list of free agent third basemen reveals that there’s not much else out there. Pedro Feliz is getting older, and Miguel Tejada is even older than that. And that’s pretty much it. And there’s nobody good enough on the other side of the infield who can justify moving Youkilis to third, so that’s not an option either. The 2010 season was derailed primarily by injuries, so why not bring back the man who played in all but eight games all season? There’s only one option for the Red Sox: bring back the Dude from Santo Domingo!

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