What's the Half-Life of a Decaying Beltran? Or: Who's Next for Right?

This is one of those pessimistic posts I'd be happy to laugh at myself for writing, ideally after Carlos Beltran heats up. Last season, he clearly played through pain, and not for a payday -- he was just starting the three-year, $45 million deal that's very likely his last major contract -- but to help the team's faint playoff hopes. And from interviews, he seems like a good guy who cares about his quality of play. But that quality of play sure has gotten poor. Granted, 2015 Beltran has only 30 bad plate appearances of a .143/.167/.214 line that leaves him an OPS (.381) barely higher than Alex Rodriguez's OBP – but Beltran has been aging ungracefully for longer than April 2015. The 2015 bad start follows a bad 2015 spring, which follows a sub-replacement 2014 (-0.2 WAR), which follows a generally injury-prone 30s. So it's not early-season gun-jumping to be pessimistic about a guy with that record of decline and brittleness who's just days away from turning 38. It’s the opposite: what reason is there to expect that Beltran has high odds of recovering from injury and low performance in his age 37 season, then a poor spring and regular-season start as he turns 38?

Given that Beltran optimism looks much less realistic than Beltran pessimism, it would be odd not to start thinking of right field contingency plans. If you squint hard, you can see a wide range of alternatives – but the best thing the dying embers of Beltran's career have going for them is how those alternatives are a sorry mix of the uninspiring and the unready.

(1) The Backups. Chris Young and Garrett Jones are just what you want for 4th and 5th outfielders: they're not mediocre across the board; they have specific skills that are genuine assets in the right situations. Young can run, defend, and possibly hit lefties; Jones can hit righties while we hope nobody hits a baseball to him. I wouldn't mind a LH/RH platoon of the two, with Young also replacing Jones defensively in the late innings. But Young's lefty-hitting isn't certain (OPS vs. LHP: career, .817; 2014, .561), and Jones's inability to catch a ball is certain, so the platoon could be worse than the usual solid merger of marginal lefty with marginal righty.

(2) The MLB-Readies. Jose Pirela (supposedly on his way back from his concussion) has a 2015 projection (via Steamer on Fangraphs) of  .259/.307/.381 that sounds pessimistic and might already equal Beltran, plus any reasonably athletic 25 year-old should beat Beltran's horrific defense (-1.5 dWAR in 2013, then -1.5 in a 2014 that was really 2/3 of a season, making Beltran roughly -2.2 dWAR/yr) – but the Yankees seem to have cast Pirela as a supersub and/or alternative to Petit/Ryan, so I doubt he's a realistic post-Beltran. Ramon Flores is 23 and, after OPS'ing .723 in a full season at AA, has an .804 in a half-season at AAA – but this may be the rare situation in which OPS tells less than old stats: .262 at AA and .252 at AAA don't project into a lot of MLB hitting; and he racked up only 15 HR in those 1.5 AA-AAA seasons, so I don't see much power projection either.

(3) The Actual Prospects. Don't get me wrong: I'd love to see either Tyler Austin or Slade Heathcott set Scranton afire, then warrant a mid-season call-up. But don't hold your breath for a pre-July callup because both are newbies to AAA due to each injuring so many joints that their Wikipedia pages read like the annoying preschool song, "head, shoulders, knees, and toes..." And at the risk of breaking Domenic's heart, Aaron Judge, new to AA this week, isn't getting called up before late 2015 at the most wildly optimistic; same for his fellow Trenton outfielder Jake Cave, who is a bit further along in his development, but as a lower-ceiling guy than Judge is no more likely to jump two levels to MLB before very late in the season.

So, there you have it: the dual silver lining, I suppose, is that (a) Beltran will get the time he needs to try to rummage through A-Rod's spare garage for the half-stale 'roids he needs to have any hope of hitting again recover his lost strength, reflexes, and durability, and (b) if the Yankees give Beltran most or all of the season despite ongoing crappiness, it won't be one of those George-esque decisions to stifle a promising youngster for an aging brand name. The big question, it seems, is 2016: if Beltran muddles through a weak 2015, can he fend off whoever seems ready among, say, Heathcott, Cave, and Judge?