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MLB MLB PlayoffsSt Louis Cardinals

2013 MLB Playoffs: St. Louis Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran Facing Unfamiliar Territory

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As fans who have watched him in the past few seasons already know, Carlos Beltran practically lives for playing baseball around this time of the year.

Call it veteran savvy or the uncanny ability to pace himself, but the 36-year-old star knows how to shine the brightest when the games count the most. Don’t believe me? Let his .967, 1.134 and .849 OPS numbers from 2010, 2011 and 2012 convince you instead.

In 2013, however, that narrative has taken a surprising turn, and things aren’t quite going according to plan with the St. Louis Cardinals star.

See, for the first time in a very long time, the slugging outfielder has ended his season mired in a deep slump. In fact, his .633 OPS through 100 PA in September is easily the worst of every September he’s had in the last decade-plus, with only a 23-year-old Beltran’s .600 OPS with the Kansas City Royals in 2000 keeping it from hitting rock bottom.

At -0.3 fWAR, he’s easily been the team’s worst regular positional player over the last month of the regular season; and considering that he’s mostly been expected to be a table-setter for the Cardinals at the no. 2 spot, you could see why that might be a problem for the team as they enter yet another playoff run.

Well … at least it would be if the team wasn’t so deep that they can just move right along thanks to emerging players like Matt Adams, anyway.

That said, the postseason is a fickle time, and should Adams’ BABIP-fueled tear run out of help from the baseball gods and Allen Craig is out of commission, what was a relative non-issue can quickly become a clear sign of vulnerability from the World Series contender. So, can Beltran make it back from the unfamiliar place he’s in to give the team some stability in the postseason?

If you were to just consider his past performance, you’d think so. After all, despite still being on a quest to earn that elusive ring after all these years, the eight-time All-Star does possess an incredible 1.252 OPS through 151 postseason plate appearances.

In short, if there’s a player you want on a playoff roster, it’s this guy.

That number, and the fact that he his posted a ludicrous .357/.440/.714 triple-slash with the redbirds in October of 2012 should be enough for fans to give him the benefit of the doubt, but there are mitigating factors that are at play this season.

The biggest one is probably his health. No, Beltran isn’t the spry young man he used to be and his misadventures with various ailments are well documented, but even if he managed to mostly persevere through back and knee issues he had late last season, it’s the wrinkle of the left wrist injury this season that may be the final straw.

How serious is the ailment? Has it affected his swing? Given that his contact rate (76.9 percent in September vs. 81.4 overall) has dipped, and in particular his contact rate with pitches inside the zone (88.4 vs. 91.3), there could conceivably be a bat speed issue here.

More concerning is the fact that his power has been sapped, with his HR/FB rate plummeting to a mere 3.2 percent in September from 12.5 on the season. No, he hasn’t turned into a pop-up king or anything like that, but that he’s slugged .313 in September and lifted the ball more (42.5 percent FB vs. 40.9) doesn’t exactly bode well for his production in the playoffs, especially when the HR is kind of his calling card (14 in 34 postseason games).

All of which is to say that while the Cardinals did avoid having to play in the Wild Card game, they are not without a wildcard of their own to deal with in Beltran.

Sure, he won’t necessarily be the player that breaks the team’s World Series dreams, but it’s his demonstrated ability to potentially make it which makes his slump that much more frustrating for the team.

Thom is an MLB writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @BlueJaysRant, or add him to your network on Google