Here is a true statement: Carlos Beltran was the best hitter to change teams in this year's non-waiver trade deadline.
That sentence could have been lifted verbatim from the 2004 deadline, which makes his move to Texas a monumental victory irrespective of whatever happens next. It's a chance for the game's most quietly venerable star to reassert himself on a postseason stage.
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At 39, Beltran is a shadow of his former self in the best way possible, a vengeful ghost who is down a few tools from his mid-2000's peak but gets by on guile and old man strength. Barring injury, he'll end the year with his most home runs of any season since at least 2012, with a strong shot for the fifth 30-homer campaign of his 19-year-career. His .242 isolated power represents his best mark since 2007 and third-highest of his career. He's obliterating lefties at a .351/.405/.640 clip, which is especially massive for a Rangers team that is often allergic to hitting southpaws and, six-game division lead notwithstanding, still wants for a good many other things, too.
The cost – Dillon Tate, the fourth overall pick in last year's draft, plus two lesser prospects – is notable but also essential. It's what a contender should pay to wedge an impact hitter into the heart of its order, irrespective of Beltran's advanced age or impending free agent status. With Shin-Soo Choo again hobbled and Nomar Mazara now in the uncomfortable teething stage of his rookie year, Beltran is the sort of improvement who could even prove more essential as summer bleeds into fall.
Still, there's a feeling that Beltran's exploits have been discussed only in the context of where he could be doing them versus the fact that he is doing them at all. There is no preemptive call for a Carlos Beltran victory lap nor will any Save The Dates be issued for a media bonanza ahead of his looming retirement, whenever that may be. Beltran simply isn't a cultural artifact like Ichiro, nor is his age-39-season as resplendent as David Ortiz's swansong at 40.
Which isn't to denigrate his own significance within the game. Beltran's career bWAR of 70.2 ranks inside the top 100 in baseball history, and above a clutch of current Hall of Famers. The aesthetics were impeccable: A dozen years ago, when the Astros rented him from Kansas City, Beltran ranked as the game's most breathtaking player outside of Alex Rodriguez, a switch-hitting perennial 30-30 contender who handled center field with aplomb.
Beltran doesn't play outfield as well as he used to, but the bat still checks out. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports.
But his crush of talent no longer dominates headlines by itself. It's only so remarkable on its own. Beltran has never suffered disgrace like Rodriguez, or decided a World Series like Ortiz, or slogged through a total bummer like Ichiro's 2014 and 2015 seasons. The defining run of his career—the 2004 NL playoffs, during which he matched Barry Bonds' postseason home run record—now stands mostly in relation to his postseason nadir: getting struck out by Adam Wainwright in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
Yet today, all he does is hit, quietly and apparently endlessly, even as his outfield runs further devolve into jerky ambling, even though the same legs that once nabbed 83 bases over two seasons have not carried him to a single stolen base since August 2014. He stands as proof that old machines do not necessarily need replacing, as well as an unfortunate reminder that people don't often go overboard praising them, either.
Would a World Series change that? If nothing else, it would force a wider acceptance of Beltran's blend of achievement and, at his peak, five-tool ability producing a bona fide Hall of Fame career.
But the beauty of Beltran's late-career brilliance is that he still produces. There is no need to parse through his legacy just yet, because it's entirely possible that the most glorious moment of Carlos Beltran's baseball career is still to come. Unlike Big Papi, there will be a tomorrow to Beltran's career. He isn't broken like Rodriguez or grounding out into irrelevance like Albert Pujols in Anaheim. While Ichiro's resurgence in Miami is heartwarming, he serves as a fourth outfielder instead of being a marquee piece of the lineup. Beltran could swing the race for the league's best record or rake in the postseason, perhaps even decide a World Series, and no one would really bat an eyelash. As the Rangers' newly-minted leader in home runs and OPS, those outcomes may even be expected.
Should they reach fruition, it would provide an incontrovertible reminder of how special Beltran is. But if they don't, he'd remain a success regardless, even as a relatively muted legend. It's a bittersweet irony to be able to take any athlete for granted at 39. It's a luxury afforded only to the truly great ones like him, a hitter who never stopped being good.