Over the course of his 19-year Major League Baseball career, Carlos Beltran has earned $206 million. He’s made nine All-Star teams. Among his peers, he’s universally respected, a likely Hall of Fame candidate. He doesn’t need to keep playing baseball.
But when Beltran hit the free agent market this winter, the first call he received came from Astros manager A.J. Hinch. The message was clear and convincing. “He told me that I was a priority for them,” Beltran says. “They really wanted to have a veteran in the clubhouse, but not only a veteran—a guy who could still perform. They were really interested since day one.”
We’ll forgive Astros fans who were skittish when they heard about Hinch’s overture. Yes, this is the same Beltran who took the city by storm in 2004, bashing a Ruthian 23 home runs in just 90 games after arriving via mid-season trade, then cracking another eight during the club’s postseason run to the National League Championship Series. It’s also the same Beltran who skipped town shortly thereafter, collecting a hefty contract from the Mets and spurning Houston in the process. To feel bitter when your summer tryst fizzles is only natural. Thirteen years later, with a one-year deal worth $16 million in hand, Beltran is determined to patch up that relationship.
His won’t be the only fresh face in the Minute Maid home dugout come Opening Day, on April 3. There’s catcher and former Beltran teammate Brian McCann, an above-average batter for his position and a calming presence behind the plate. There’s corner outfielder Josh Reddick, a left-hander whose ability to put the ball in play instead of striking out is something the Astros’ recent rosters have lacked. And there’s Charlie Morton, who will bolster a pitching rotation beset by injuries. (More help could be on the way in that department, too.)
They’ll join a ludicrously talented core of youngsters, who, for the time being, cost the Astros relatively little to employ. Gone are the dramatically slashed payrolls and humiliating 100-loss seasons. General manager Jeff Luhnow’s radical rebuilding project is finally paying dividends. One respected projection system, NEIFI, predicts 95 victories in 2017, more than the club has won since 1999. Vegas gives them a 20 percent chance to win the American League pennant.
For fans, there’s a certain narrative satisfaction to the Beltran signing. He’ll turn 40 this month; the Astros turn 55. Both are seeking that elusive first World Series title. And Beltran, who once soaked up hardball wisdom from franchise legends like Biggio and Bagwell, is now in a position to dispense some of his own. “The young guys, they go through the minor league system all the way to the Big Leagues, and they’ve never failed. Then all the sudden, they hit a rough stretch, and they don’t know how to handle that,” Beltran says. “The fact that I’ve been through a lot of things, I’ll be able to guide them.”
When we catch up with Beltran, two weeks before spring training, he's just coming out of a bass-thumping weight room, en route to the batting cages. On his to-do list, he tell us, is finding a place in Houston to live, and finishing laying the groundwork for a charity event he’ll host at the Four Seasons this August, benefiting the baseball academy he runs in his native Puerto Rico.
Even for a guy who has suited up professionally nearly 2,500 times, and who slugged an impressive .510 in 2016, the preseason nerves never ease up. “Every single game, that first at-bat, I’m anxious,” he says. “But it’s a good thing. It means you want to do well, and you really care.”