Hall of Fame: Sign-stealing saga muddles Carlos Beltran’s solid case

Carlos Beltran exited the game on top. His story wasn’t quite finished, though.

Beltran enjoyed a dynamic 20-year career in Major League Baseball, reaching the postseason with five franchises and showing off a combination of power, speed and defense that puts him on a very short list of all-time five-tool players.

His candidacy for baseball’s Hall of Fame is awfully close to slam-dunk territory. But a post-career revelation will make his path to Cooperstown a bit more difficult than a layup.

Two years after Beltran eased into retirement after helping the Houston Astros win the 2017 World Series, his role as a ringleader in their rules-flouting sign-stealing scheme was revealed, throwing a twist into Hall candidacy that was borderline, but tilting toward induction.

Now, we will find out just how much the final chapter of his career will affect his permanent perch in the game’s lore.

USA TODAY Sports examines Beltran’s case:

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Why Beltran belongs in the Hall

Statistically or purely from an aesthetic standpoint, Beltran was one of the game’s most talented players, certainly within his era and by some measures of all time. Beltran hit 435 home runs and stole 312 bases, one of just five in the 400-300 club. The others are in the Hall or would be but for concerns of performance-enhancing drug use: Barry Bonds (762-514), Willie Mays (660-338), Andre Dawson (438-314) and Alex Rodriguez (696-329).

Beltran’s trophy case reflects that body of work.

He was a nine-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger winner, with two top 10 MVP finishes and three Gold Glove awards. While he started his career amid a woebegone era for the Kansas City Royals (where he won the 1999 AL Rookie of the Year award) Beltran soon became a harbinger of prosperity for several franchises.

A June 2004 trade from the rebuilding Royals to the Astros drove Houston all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS, thanks to Beltran’s eight home runs and 20 for 46 (.435) batting against the Braves and Cardinals. That set the stage for his first stab at free agency, resulting in a seven-year, $119 million contract with the New York Mets.

And he’d return in 2006 to Game 7 of the NLCS, this time getting frozen by an Adam Wainwright curveball as the Cardinals edged the Mets for the pennant. But Beltran hit 41 home runs with a .982 OPS that season, finishing fourth in NL MVP voting, and hit three more NLCS homers in the Mets’ first trip that far in the playoffs since 1988.

October brilliance would be a Beltran hallmark: In 256 playoff plate appearances spanning 2004 to 2017, Beltran posted a 1.021 OPS with 16 homers and 15 doubles. And while he played a limited role as a 40-year-old on the 2017 Astros, he did finally get that championship ring.

Why he doesn’t stack up

The statistical blemishes against Beltran are essentially nitpicking if you’re a “Big Hall” type of voter, but more damning if you prefer a more exclusive group of enshrinees. Beltran never did crack the top five in MVP voting after his best-ever fourth-place finish in 2006, and the back end of his Mets stint was slowed by injuries, playing in 81 and 64 games in 2009 and 2010.

The early part of his career was also in the height of baseball’s so-called steroid era, and while Beltran has never been connected to PEDs, it does make it more challenging to contextualize his peak. From 2001-2004, he averaged 29 homers and 37 steals per season with an .882 OPS, but his adjusted OPS was a decent but not overwhelming 125. His first five seasons in New York coincided with the first season of drug testing with penalties, and were a tribute to his stalwart consistency: An .873 OPS, 127 adjusted.

No, Beltran’s black mark outside the lines would come more than a decade later, when The Athletic reported – and MLB corroborated in an investigation – that Beltran was the player who devised a system that ultimately involved a center field camera intercepting opposing signals, viewed on a monitor behind the dugout and relayed to a hitter by banging on a trash can.

While Beltran was the most senior member of an Astros lineup that largely went along with the scheme, he was also just a player on a club that gave every indication it would seek efficiencies and edges in any manner possible.

“Nobody,” Beltran said in 2022, “said anything to us.”

That likely won’t fly with voters who hew closely to the Hall’s so-called “character clause.”

Voting trends

It appears Beltran will not be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Beltran is tracking at 57.4% in early balloting on Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker, well below the 75% induction plateau and a number that should dip further when ballots not released publicly are tabulated.

Still, landing north of 50% would not be a totally discouraging first-time outcome.

Will Beltran ultimately get in?

The odds are certainly in his favor. Beltran’s resume should age nicely, and punitive votes against him for his sign-stealing role figure to recede as time goes on.

Perhaps Beltran’s biggest ally are the players remaining from that era. As Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve participate in additional World Series for the Astros, and vie for MVP consideration and batting titles, it may feel more dissonant to penalize Beltran for a final-year transgression as others move forward with their careers and reshape their legacies.

A first-ballot setback may be his true punishment. But the ultimate goal very much remains in reach.

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