After watching their prized free-agent acquisition make his spring training debut last week in Surprise, Arizona, the Texas Rangers' franchise brain trust was abuzz.
"He's the real deal all right," said manager Ron Washington.
Chirped general manager Jon Daniels, "He's like a magician."
Forget pitching aces Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke—neither of whom Texas succeeded in landing. The Rangers are ecstatic with their consolation prize: Adrian Beltre. If he's the player the Rangers anticipate, he'll be the best third baseman in franchise history.
"He's going to make us a much better team," said a beaming Washington after watching Beltre finally take the field after missing two weeks with a strained calf muscle. "He's going to hit, and hit big. And he can pick it at third. Really pick it."
While a lot of us were busy lamenting the failed courtships of Lee and Greinke, the Rangers went to Plan C and on January 5 signed Beltre to a five-year, $80 million contract loaded with reachable incentives that could push the package to six years and $98 million. His job? Simple. Make us all forget about Lee and Vladimir Guerrero and, oh yeah, Michael Young.
"I'm not coming in here to replace anybody," Beltre said after singling and homering in an exhibition loss to the Colorado Rockies at Surprise Stadium. "I just want to play my game. I think I can help this team get back to the World Series."
Steve Buechele. Young. Even Buddy Bell. If Beltre is on—he's hit as many as 49 homers and won two Gold Gloves—he'll leapfrog them all as the best player ever at Texas' hot corner. But if Beltre has a down year—he's hit as low as .240 and as few as 19 dingers—the Rangers will be hard-pressed to duplicate 2010's magical season when they won their first playoff series, beat the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series and won a game in the World Series before losing to the San Francisco Giants.
If Beltre is a bust, we'll all yearn for Guerrero's moody bat and infectious smile. Vlad, who signed with the Baltimore Orioles after not being retained by the Rangers, pushed, pulled and prodded the Rangers the first half of last season. He hit .300 with 29 homers and a team-leading 115 RBI, but faded down the stretch and was a 1-for-14 non-factor in the World Series as designated hitter. Beltre, 31, is four years younger, and the Rangers think he's better.
"There's no diminishing the positive impact Vlad had on our team," Daniels admits. "But Adrian can help us in so many ways. He makes us a better team."
After an All-Star year in which he hit .321 with 28 homers and led all of baseball with 49 doubles for the Boston Red Sox, Beltre will bat clean-up for Texas, sandwiched between reigning AL Most Valuable Player Josh Hamilton and blossoming power hitter Nelson Cruz. In the field, he'll take the place of Young at third.
"He's a pro," Young said of Beltre. "Great guy and a great player."
While Young's popularity hasn't wavered, his role is deteriorating faster than his range. After the Rangers signed Beltre and traded for Mike Napoli, Young requested a trade and charged Daniels with being untruthful about his value and trade status. In Surprise he is biting his tongue and biding his time, remaining a team captain while working on a new position at first base and a new role as primary designated hitter batting sixth in the lineup.
"I haven't talked to Michael face-to-face," Daniels said. "But that probably needs to happen at some point."
The Rangers, who begin the season April 1 against the Red Sox at Rangers Ballpark, have had an unsettled off-season filled with more notable departures than arrivals. Gone are Lee, Guerrero, catcher Bengie Molina, hitting coach Clint Hurdle and even chief executive officer and managing general partner Chuck Greenberg, who abruptly resigned his position and stake in the club two weeks ago in an apparent philosophical chasm with team president and Texas icon Nolan Ryan. Among the new faces are catcher Yorvit Torrealba and former Cy Young award winner Brandon Webb, still rehabbing from major shoulder surgery and yet to pitch in an exhibition game.
But mostly there is Beltre, who brings with him several attributes. His bat. His glove. And, yes, his head.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Beltre made his Major League Baseball debut in 1998 at age 19. That year he homered in Arlington as a Los Angeles Dodger, and he is still the youngest player to go yard at Rangers Ballpark. Now 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, he can be one of the best players in the game. In 2004 he led the majors with 48 homers, hit .334 and finished second to Barry Bonds in the NL MVP voting. He won Gold Gloves in both '07 and '08 and is generally considered a top five defensive fielder at third. During the playoffs, Young's lack of mobility and reactions were at times a liability. But now with Beltre and Elvis Andrus, the Rangers will have one of the best defensive left sides in baseball.
"Any hitter who gets it past them will deserve a hit," Daniels said.
Beltre has also produced eight seasons of 20 homers/75 RBI, a feat accomplished by only 12 third basemen since '01—and I mean 1901.
"I think we're all excited about what he can do," Hamilton said. "He's been putting up big numbers for a long time, and he seems to have the right attitude and approach to the game. We went to the World Series last year but he can make us a better team."
In Surprise Beltre was given his favored No. 29 by center fielder Julio Borbon, and he occupies the special clubhouse "suite"—double-locker space—occupied in recent years by sluggers Sammy Sosa and Guerrero.
"I'm just trying to fit in," Beltre said. "This was a very good team without me, so it's not like they are counting on me to try to do things I can't do. I just want to be myself."
Part of that process has been letting his guard down, and taking his hat off.
Beltre isn't fond of having his almost bald head touched, much less rubbed. In baseball, of course, that makes his noggin a prime target. In Boston he got into a dugout scuffle with Victor Martinez after the teammate celebrated a Beltre homer by wildly rubbing and slapping his head.
"I don't remember how it started exactly," Beltre jokes. "But I told some players that I didn't like it and that's like telling them to do it again and again. But it's all in fun. Some get carried away, but it's all good."
Borbon and Andrus have initiated Beltre and his dome, and after last Wednesday night's homer several teammates laid hands upon him in the dugout. Claw. Antlers. Noogies?
"Got to, got to," Andrus said. "I'm not so sure that he likes it yet, but everyone else likes it. For good luck."
Added Hamilton, "We all heard the stories and a couple of guys have tried to rub his head. He seems OK with it."
Beltre may not be Cliff Lee. But for now he looks—and feels—like a pretty decent consolation prize.
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