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Giants Acquire Carlos Beltran: Did the Indians Dodge a Bullet?

The Cleveland Indians’ already-slim chances of acquiring Carlos Beltran turned to nil Wednesday when the New York Mets agreed to send him to the San Francisco Giants.

In addition to Beltran, the Mets sent $4 million to San Francisco to help offset the $6.5 million left on his contract in exchange for 21-year-old right-handed pitching prospect Zach Wheeler.

When I first heard about the deal, I wasn’t particularly disappointed—I didn’t expect that the Indians would end up landing him anyway.

I was, however, quite puzzled. After all, MLB.com’s Peter Gammons said the Indians had offered to take on the entirety of Beltran’s remaining contract—an appealing proposition for the financially struggling Mets, one would think—and send a solid prospect to New York in exchange for the trade market’s top hitter.

If the Indians’ offer wasn’t enough to land Beltran, how did the Giants get him? Without knowing who Cleveland offered the Mets it’s impossible to know how well the Tribe’s proposal matched up with San Francisco’s, but if Gammons’ report is to be believed—I haven’t heard anyone suggest otherwise—the offers had to have been at least comparable.

Just off the top of my head, I would guess that Nick Hagadone—or a prospect of comparable value—was who the Tribe offered the Mets, along with full salary relief for Beltran. It wouldn’t have been worth the Indians’ while to give up anyone of a higher pedigree for a two-month rent-a-player who might not have even ended up making a difference in the AL Central race anyway.

But even though the team is strapped for cash, the Mets opted to pay an extra $4 million to get their hands on Wheeler, who came in at No. 35 on Baseball America‘s midseason top prospects list. That said, Wheeler is unproven in the higher levels (he has yet to reach Double-A) and any pitching prospect is an inherently risky choice (young pitchers are the most unreliable prospects).

The Amazin’s choice of a high-risk, high-reward player over a strong Triple-A arm and $4 million reveals that prospects’ ceilings matter more to the Mets than their chances of making it to the big leagues or saving much-needed money.

From this, we can infer that the cost of doing business with the Mets would have been far too high to have been beneficial. Lonnie Chisenhall, Drew Pomeranz, Jason Kipnis—those are the kinds of players it presumably would have taken for the Indians to get the Mets interested, and that’s exactly the kind of “mortgaging the future” that the front office has pledged to avoid.

If Beltran guaranteed the Indians a spot in the playoffs that they wouldn’t otherwise get, that would be one thing—one could make the case that a certain postseason berth this year is more valuable than possible division titles in 2012 and beyond. It would be shortsighted thinking, but it would at least be defensible.

But there is no guarantee that Cleveland won’t make the playoffs without Beltran, and—perhaps more importantly—there’s no guarantee that they would win the division with him. Imagine giving up six (or more) years of Chisenhall or Pomeranz only to see the Indians finish a game behind the Tigers.

There is a possibility that Beltran exercised his no-trade clause (as he did with the Pirates) to block a deal to Cleveland, but he has denied doing so. It seems much more likely that the Mets’ top priority was acquiring a blue-chip prospect, and they went with the Giants because they were willing to part with one.

Beltran would have looked great in an Indians uniform. He’d be a fantastic replacement for Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore, and he’d have given the Tribe a terrific problem when they both returned. But knowing now how high the asking price was, I’m glad things didn’t work out.

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