The last player to sign with the Cardinals for more than two years without already being in the organization was Adam Kennedy in November 2006. The last time St. Louis gave more than $20 million guaranteed to a free agent who was not already in the organization was the winter of 2001-02, when it signed Tino Martinez and Jason Isringhausen.
"There's a little more payroll flexibility with how we're currently constituted," general manager John Mozeliak said. "So you're allowed the opportunity to be a little more aggressive in the free-agent market."
The club quickly identified Beltran as a primary target once it became clear that Albert Pujols was departing via free agency.
"One of the exercises we were doing at the Winter Meetings was definitely looking at what the world might look like if we weren't able to keep Albert," Mozeliak said. "So really, at the moment of realization, we had a pretty good idea of what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. Didn't actually know if we could pull it off."
In a market where three-year deals seemingly were the norm for outfielders, it was something of a coup for the Cardinals to get Beltran on a two-year contract. Josh Willingham and Michael Cuddyer each recently signed three-year pacts with new teams, and Beltran is more accomplished over his career than either. He's also older, but he's coming off a strong year.
A switch-hitting outfielder, Beltran has one of baseball's most well-rounded offensive games. He is a lifetime .283 hitter with both on-base ability (a career .361 average) and power (.496 slugging percentage). He's one of the most efficient basestealers in Major League history, with 293 steals in 334 attempts for an 87.7 percent success rate. In 2011, he put up a combined .300/.385/.525 line in 142 games with the Mets and Giants.
The 34-year-old native of Puerto Rico will add depth to a Cardinals lineup that will be without Pujols in 2012. Pujols signed with the Angels as a free agent earlier in December.
Beltran, a three-time Gold Glove winner in center field, moved to right field in 2011 as he made his way back to full strength from knee surgery. He will likely start the 2012 season in right, with Lance Berkman moving to first base, while Allen Craig is out due to his own offseason knee operation.
Once Craig comes back, Beltran would probably still play plenty of right field. But he also could get more time in center, spelling Jon Jay against left-handed pitchers and allowing new manager Mike Matheny a great deal of flexibility in making out his lineup. The club is confident that Beltran can play at least some center field.
"He'll get playing time out there," Mozeliak said. "Obviously I think early on, he'll see more playing time in right field. ... From a scouting standpoint, what our scouts saw last year gave us some confidence. But yes, there certainly had to be some effort reviewing his medicals. All of that gave us confidence that this was doable."
Best known in St. Louis as the victim of Adam Wainwright's strikeout that ended the 2006 National League Championship Series, Beltran has an extensive history with the Redbirds. He also starred in the 2004 NLCS in which the Cards edged the Astros in seven games, and faced them both as an NL player as well as in Interleague Play, when he was with Kansas City.