Lost in all the excitement, opinion and analysis following today's Carlos Beltran trade is just how rare it is for a player having a season as strong as Beltran's to be dealt. Since 1980, there have been 1,371 outfielder seasons that qualified for the batting title. Ranked by OPS+, Beltran's 151 mark ranks 99th out of all of them – and second among outfielders traded mid-season.
So the Mets' trading stance – holding out for top-tier talent and eventually getting Zack Wheeler – makes a great deal of sense. But it is also worth exploring: has the acquisition of outfield offense near the caliber of Beltran been a difference-maker for teams?
The only outfielder with a higher OPS+ to be traded mid-year since 1980 was Gary Sheffield. He posted a 155 OPS+ for the Marlins and Dodgers during a 1998 season that ranks 77th among outfield offensive seasons since 1980.
The deal isn't overly illustrative of what Beltran can provide for a number of reasons. For one thing, Sheffield was traded much earlier in the season – May 14 – and to a team that wasn't looking to win that season (trading Mike Piazza in the deal is a reliable indicator of that). Sheffield went on to make the All-Star team for Los Angeles, providing 3.0 wins above replacement, even with an awful glove that made him a more one-dimensional player than Beltran. To be sure, Sheffield wasn't a candidate to play center field. But with alternatives like a young Roger Cedeno and Todd Hollandsworth, Sheffield was certainly a difference-maker for the Dodgers, even if they finished the season with a mediocre 83-79 record.
Next on the list, appearing at 133rd among offensive outfield seasons since 1980, is the trade of Rickey Henderson on July 31, 1993. The Oakland Athletics, looking to rebuild, sent the 34-year-old Henderson to Toronto for elite pitching prospect Steve Karsay and toolsy outfielder Jose Herrera. According to Baseball America, Herrera was the 97th best prospect in baseball prior to the 1994 season; Karsay ranked 12th overall.
It is no surprise that Sandy Alderson, the current Mets General Manager, wanted a similar return to the one obtained by then-Oakland GM… Sandy Alderson. Henderson, for his part, slumped badly after the trade. He'd put up a 182 OPS+ with Oakland, but that dropped to just 83 with Toronto. Still, Henderson and the Jays went on to win a World Series. It is hard not to consider Henderson a difference-maker, especially since the other Toronto left fielders were Darnell Coles, Rob Butler, Willie Canate and Turner Ward.
The only other offensive outfield season in the top 200 since 1980 from a player traded in-season came from Brian Giles, whose 145 OPS+ ranked 161 in 2003. The Giles difference-maker portion of the deal is hard to evaluate – he went from a Pirates team out of the race to a Padres team out of the race. But the return is noteworthy – a young, hard-throwing lefty named Oliver Perez, a young, power-hitting outfielder named Jason Bay, and minor leaguer Cory Stewart.
In short, it is easy to see that any contender who suggested Beltran wasn't worth much was just posturing. Outfielders who hit like Carlos Beltran simply aren't available in many midseason trades.