Dodger Future Rests With Beltré

New Dodger owner Frank McCourt caught lightening in a bottle during his first year on watch over the historic franchise. He presided over the team's first National League West championship in nine seasons, first playoff victory since the Orel Hershiser's magic in 1988 and the third-highest attendance (3,488,283) in Dodger Stadium history.

McCourt and his hand-picked General Manager Paul DePodesta, realize that the sleeping Dodger Nation has been reawakened, relishing the appearance in postseason play and now demanding more.

The owner told the Los Angeles Times he was also hungry and determined to deliver. His general manager, who came aboard very late in the 2004 pre-season, is now in charge of the baseball operation in his first full off-season as the Dodgers try to move closer to the major league's top dogs, retain third baseman Adrian Beltré and follow a more realistic financial line that News Corp. crossed in such a haphazard manner.

In his first statement of policy, DePodesta said he plans to do everything he can to bring Beltré back next season. Beltré earned a bargain $5 million this year and had a gigantic season. He also figures to be one of the most sought-after free agents on the market this offseason.

Plus he has Scott Boras as his agent.

"I'd like to do everything I possibly can to make sure he's back in a Dodger uniform," DePodesta said. "He was certainly our team MVP this year. He carried us offensively and played unbelievable defense, too. He's been huge, no question about it."

Remarkably, the veteran third baseman is only 25 with the good possibility of 10 more solid seasons in his future. He batted .334 (6th all time in L.A.) with a major league-leading 48 home runs (2nd), 200 hits (one of 11 in L.A. history), 121 RBI (tied for 2nd) and 104 runs scored along with a .629 slugging percentage (3rd) -- MVP numbers all. He committed only 10 errors in the field and must be a strong candidate for the first gold glove third baseman in franchise history.

Facing an operation on his ankle, he said he's not thinking about his future at the present time -- he needed some time to just savor the season. "I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "I'm willing to wait to find out. I'm just going to sit back and see what goes on. It's been fun to be here."

Manager Jim Tracy said Beltré has shown consistency this season. Tracy believes he's had it in him all along, despite hitting .240 last season with 23 homers and 80 RBI.

And although he hasn't said it, he shudders when thinking about opening the 2005 season without his bat and glove in the lineup.

Dodger fans, who have enjoyed waves of over-the-top pitching since the club arrived in California, have been waiting for a Hall of Fame-type hitter. They had one in Mike Piazza. Tommy Davis, who won two batting titles before breaking his leg in 1965 and losing that little edge needed, came close as did Steve Garvey. Reggie Smith had it for a couple seasons, Kirk Gibson displayed it in 1988 before injuries overcame him and Raul Mondesi could have been the one.

If Beltré slips away, the Dodger program will have suffered a major setback. A francise finds this sort of athlete only every couple decades -- of course, if you are the Yankees you can wait for other teams to develop the talent and just buy them, like selecting perfect fruit at the grocery store, picking and choosing to fit your fancy.

McCourt is a smart operator and knows this. "We're going to build on this success," he said. "We're going to take what we accomplished this season, we're going to learn from it, we're going to make wise decisions and we're going to get better because that's what the fans deserve."

Re-signing Beltré tops DePodesta's off-season list -- but only at the right price. "I've made it clear that we want Adrian to be here," he said. "He played a huge role in our success and he's definitely someone you want to have around, for obvious reasons. At the same time, I don't know what's going to happen. We're prepared for the give and take that's going to take place."

Then came the chilling part, "but in the end it's not our decision," he said.

Boras declined to discuss his plans for Beltré, but baseball sources familiar with Boras' thinking said he might initially seek more than $12 million a season in a seven-year deal. Dodger sources told The Times it was highly doubtful that DePodesta would recommend committing anything in that range to Beltré. The Dodgers might not go beyond a four-year contract that averaged $11 million, a team source said.

We hope this is pre-negotiations posturing. But Boras really doesn't care one way or the other.

"We're not allowed to have any contact with teams right now," Boras said. "But what I am saying is that Adrian Beltré does things that are unique in the game at his position. I would think that there are a lot of teams out there that might be (a little irony here) interested in that type of player."

Some speculate that one reason DePodesta traded catcher Paul Lo Duca, setup man Guillermo Mota, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and left-handed reliever Tom Martin in July was to clear payroll, positioning the team to make a strong offer to Beltré plus also addressing pitching concerns.

The Dodgers finished with a payroll of about $92 million. Although only infielder-outfielder Shawn Green and pitchers Jeff Weaver, Darren Dreifort and Kazuhisa Ishii are under contract for 2005, the Dodgers owe them almost $43 million.

McCourt and DePodesta have declined to reveal next season's payroll, but few in baseball expect the Dodgers to be in the $100-million club.

Beltré's teammates are confident he'll be wearing Dodger blue again in 2005.

"He'll be here. He'll be here. He'll be here," closer Eric Gagné told The Times. "They want to win. They know Adrian Beltré is the reason we win. He loves the city and the city loves him."

Eric is a nice guy. Let's hope he's right.

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