The Beltran-Wheeler Trade in Context

The defending World Champion San Francisco Giants made two moves during the days leading up to the trade deadline. One, swapping top pitching prospect Zach Wheeler for slugging outfielder Carlos Beltran was intriguing, the other sending minor league outfielder Thomas Neal to the Cleveland Indians for Orlando Cabrera, a veteran shortstop who may well be finished as a useful player was not necessarily a terrible trade, but a frustrating one nonetheless.

The Wheeler for Beltran trade was the bigger deal and the one that will be easy to evaluate. If Beltran brakes out his mini-slump since joining the Giants and returns to being the major offensive force he has been for most of his career helping San Francisco play deep into the playoffs, it will be a good trade for the Giants. If the 21 year old Wheeler reaches his considerable potential and becomes a valuable big league pitcher, it will be a good trade for the Mets. This much is basic and straightforward.

It is also somewhat unsatisfactory analysis because it ignores the context and theory surrounding the trade. Part of the context is obvious, the Giants are hoping to repeat as World Series champions, but have had a weak offense all season so adding a bat like Beltran’s could be a big help, but that only tells part of the story. One reason Giants fans should be encouraged by this trade is that it reflects the ruthlessness that was an overlooked factor contributing to the team’s success in 2010. Brian Sabean and the Giants’ management eschewed narratives about chemistry and balance and brought in a better hitter to play right field, despite the likelihood that inevitably a fan favorites and members of the 2010 team, Cody Ross, Andres Torres or Nate Schierholtz will lose playing time, just as in 2010 management did not hesitate to dump or phase out unproductive veterans like Bengie Molina and Barry Zito. Upgrading from these players to Beltran is the kind of decision that team’s trying to repeat as World Series champions have to make. Adding Beltran is, of course, no guarantee, that the Giants will repeat, but not making a move of the kind would have all but guaranteed that the Giants would not have repeated.

The Giants decision to trade Zach Wheeler also occurs in an interesting context. Wheeler is the top pitching prospect on a team that has an enormous amount of pitching talent, under the age of 30, at the big league level, including three top starting pitchers, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner who are also products of the Giants minor league system. Had Wheeler stayed with the Giants, he might have joined those three in the Giants pitching rotation. Even teams with extraordinary young pitching can always use more of it, so the loss of Wheeler is not insignificant. Of course, at this time Wheeler is still more potential than anything else.

Nonetheless, the Giants’ willingness to trade Wheeler only makes as much sense as their commitment to keep the big three of Bumgarner, Cain and Lincecum together. Over the next few years, the Giants will have to offer all three of these players big contracts. It is not at all difficult to imagine the Giants being forced to spend $250 million or more to secure the services of these three pitchers for the next 4-8 years. That is a lot of money and will present a test of the Giants ability to evolve into a larger market, and larger payroll, franchise. If they are unwilling to spend that kind of money to keep the nucleus of pitchers together, they probably should not have traded their top pitching prospect.

Another big part of the context for the Beltran trade was the injury to star catcher and 2010 Rookie of the Year, Buster Posey. Posey’s injury deprived the Giants of one of their best hitters and made the need to acquire another big bat even more urgent. Interestingly, despite the injury to one of the team’s best players, the Giants still approached the trade deadline as if they had a chance of winning it all again. Given that they are still tied for first place in the NL West, and despite their current slump, this is not a crazy notion.

Adding Beltran to a Giants lineup featuring a healthy Posey would have given the Giants one of the best lineups in the National League. However, with Posey out, the lineup still suffers from a lack of production from the catcher’s spot. Addressing this problem is tougher than finding a slugging outfielder, but may well still be necessary. If the Giants go into the stretch run with Beltran in right and the current Eli Whiteside-Chris Stewart combination behind the plate, the team will have an unfinished feel. If the Giants were really serious about winning this year, despite the paucity of good catchers available, in addition to picking up Beltran, they would have found a way to upgrade offensively and improved the catching situation. Perhaps, they will make a waiver move, but that is unknown for now.

In addition to the very easy to measure question of how well Beltran hits, and how well the Giants do in 2011, there is broader context, from the Giants side of the ledger, for evaluating the Beltran-Wheeler trade involving further moves by the Giants and their ability to keep their top pitchers under contract. Accordingly, the real impact of this trade, and its underlying logic, go beyond the players involved and, even in the case of Beltran, how they play this year.