Beltran's homers suggest a new home

Here’s how much the sport of baseball has changed in just a few short years: On Thursday, Carlos Beltran became the first player in 2011 to hit three home runs in a game.

From 1995 through 2010, this happened 178 times (including three four-homer games), or an average of about 11 times per season. It reached an absurd peak off 22 three-homer games in 2001. Or maybe it reached its absurdity in 2002, when Chris Woodward hit three home runs. For the record, there were 13 three-homer games in 2010.

Anyway, Beltran became the eighth Mets player to hit three in a game, but even more remarkable is the season he’s putting together, considering there were times in spring training when it appeared as though he could barely walk. He’s hitting .295/.387/.590, and swinging the bat better than he has in years.

All this makes him very attractive trade bait, much like his teammate Jose Reyes. Reyes has been hogging all the trade-related rumors, but Beltran is also a free agent after the season. He could be available for the same three reasons as Reyes: the Mets’ financial issues, they may not be able to re-sign him, and they’re unlikely to contend in the tough NL East.

So, assuming the Mets do fall out of the race, where could Beltran end up? Keep in mind the parameters involved with putting him on someone else’s ballclub. First, he’s making $18.5 million, so the Mets would likely have to eat a portion of his contract in any deal, especially if they want a good prospect in return. Second, Beltran cannot play center field anymore -- he should be regarded only as somebody’s corner outfielder or DH.

OK, let’s begin the roll call of possible suitors:

Angels: Anaheim has a mediocre offense and the willingness to spend, but they have Bobby Abreu locked in at DH and are very unlikely to punt on Vernon Wells in left field.

Rangers: Michael Young for Beltran? Sorry, nobody wants Young, even if he’s hitting .349. Julio Borbon and a pitching prospect? The Rangers have indicated they want to keep Josh Hamilton out of center field, so there’s no fit here.

Dodgers: The Dodgers have a big hole in left field (unless rookie Jerry Sands starts hitting) and first base with James Loney’s batting ineptitude, so Beltran would be a nice fit, with Sands potentially moving to first. Except I believe the Dodgers have this little thing going on with their problematic cash flow. …

Rockies: They could move Dexter Fowler and slide Carlos Gonzalez over to center, except they seem to believe in Fowler more than the average analyst.

Cubs: Hahahaha.

White Sox: According to FanGraphs, Juan Pierre has been the least valuable position player in baseball, with a WAR of -1.1. Trouble is, the White Sox don’t have a system loaded with prospects right now, and we’re not exactly clear if Ozzie Guillen knows how bad Pierre is.

Tigers: They already have Magglio Ordonez, Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch filling the outfielder corners, and Victor Martinez pretty much locked in at DH with Alex Avila producing at catcher, so it seems unlikely Detroit would have a burning desire to take on Beltran’s salary.

Mariners: Well, they could certainly use a DH or a left fielder, but they’re 16-22 and sinking fast.

So, after looking at all of those alternatives, there is potentially one team that seems like a perfect fit: the Tampa Bay Rays.

Their DHs (mostly Johnny Damon) are hitting .238 with a .272 OBP. Their left fielders (mostly Sam Fuld) are hitting .228 with a .289 OBP and two home runs. True, they have hot-shot prospect Desmond Jennings, who is hitting .289 with a .408 OBP at Triple-A Durham, but he’s not going to bring much power with him.

Most importantly, the Rays have plenty of prospects to deal. Keith Law rated the Rays’ farm system the second best in baseball at the start of the season. Also, due to the loss of several free agents, they have 10 of the first 60 picks in the June draft, so they could easily deal a prospect or two since they’ll be reloading in June.

The issue with the Rays would be their taking on a sizable chunk of Beltran’s contract, especially since they’ll have to expand their budget to sign all those draft picks. But the Rays began the season with a $41 million payroll, the second lowest in baseball, behind Kansas City. They actually spent about $72 million in 2010, so even though they’ll have to allot maybe an extra $8 million for signing bonuses, they conceivably may have a little money to spend.

Considering the Yankees and Red Sox both look vulnerable, the Rays could sneak in with their third AL East title in four years. Wouldn’t that be something?