In 2013, Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran is enjoying another fine season: .310/.343/.522 (137 OPS+) with 23 homers. Beltran may be 36 years of age and in his 16th major-league season, but, as the numbers show, he's still capable of playing at a high level.
He's also a pending free agent. The two year, $26-million deal he signed with the Cardinals in December of 2011 (which has turned out to be a serious bargain for the Cards) ends after this season, and Beltran, in the absence of an extension, will hit the market.
So how likely is it that Beltran will return to St. Louis? Here's this illuminating comment by Beltran, as reported by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
"I've got to play. I can't accept a role where I'm not. How can I accept a role when I'm having the year I'm having and I'm producing at the level I'm producing? I don't think that would make sense for anybody. I want to have a role where I'm playing."
That's an eminently reasonable stance by Beltran. He's still highly productive, he's bolstering his Hall of Fame case, and this is the default setting for a big leaguer who's been a regular his entire career. The question then becomes whether the Cardinals can offer Beltran full-time duty in 2014.
Maybe not. As Goold notes, the Cardinals can play Allen Craig at Beltran's position in right and deploy Matt Adams at first base. At some point next season, top prospect Oscar Taveras, assuming he gets and stays healthy, will be ready for a regular job at the highest level. Add Beltran to that, and you've got a bottleneck, especially once Taveras hits his way to St. Louis. All of this means two things: the Cardinals, who are fond of low-cost internal solutions these days, are poised to absorb the loss of Beltran, and they may not be able to give Beltran the assurances he understandably seeks.
It's also likely that Beltran realizes -- in order to give himself the best shot at, say, 2,500 hits, 400 home runs and 500 doubles -- he's going to need to have the DH role at his disposal. Beltran's range in the field is very much in decline, and he has a rather substantial history of knee problems. Transitioning into DH detail, either as permanent role or as fallback, would make a lot of sense moving forward. Obviously, the Cardinals, being an NL team, can't offer him that option.
Per Goold, GM John Mozeliak is of course saying the right things, in that nothing's been ruled out, but it would be deeply surprising if the Cardinals did anything beyond making the sparest possible qualifying offer, which they must do in order to secure a compensatory draft pick should Beltran sign elsewhere. It seems unlikely that Beltran would accept such an offer because he's aware of the potential for a logjam in St. Louis, and he's highly likely to command at least a two-year deal on the market.
Beltran's had a great two-year run in St. Louis, but amicably parting ways this offseason makes sense for both sides.