Beltre... or Bust?

Adrian Beltre has been the object of a lot of fan scorn this season, and rightfully so. He was signed to a $64 million mega-deal to be the Mariners savior. Beltre was billed as the big-time slugger with the golden glove who would lead the Seattle squad back to the playoffs. Unfortunately, things haven't gone as planned for the 26-year-old infielder.

Well, not only are the playoffs a pipedream this year, but Beltre hasn't even helped the M's return to respectibility. For the second consecutive season, the Safeco Nine are a major league laughingstock; a team much closer to winning the No. 1 pick sweepstakes than a trip to the playoffs.

With the combination of a revolving roster and revolting gas prices, the Tacoma-to-Seattle shuttles have racked up quadruple digits in expenses the past two months as prospects, journeymen and even the occasional established major leaguer have swapped I-5 locales at a dizzying rate. The season has been an unmitigated disaster.

Combine the huge failure to meet the locals' expectations and Beltre's pedestrian line of .261/.299/.438 that looks more like what you'd expect from Justin Leone than a MVP caliber slugger, and you have a tailor-made scapegoat. Though few fans would be foolish enough to suggest the failure of the team is all Beltre's fault, in the eyes of many the blame rests primarily on Adrian's broad yet underachieving shoulders. How could a player who posted an OPS of over 1.000 just one year ago be so bad this time around?

It didn't take long for the typical allegations from the frustrated faithful to start flying around. "He must have been on the juice!" some screamed. Others countered, "He just played great in his contract year!" Predictable labels like "greedy," "fraud," and "lazy" were thrown around as fast as a big-league hitter freezes when facing Felix Hernandez's Royal Curveball. But one little four-letter descriptor has proven stickier than all the rest, following Beltre around like an annoying kid brother. Bee - you - ess - tee. BUST.

Of course, to this point there's really no denying it. The Adrian Beltre signing HAS been a bust for the Seattle Mariners. Even for a franchise starved for merely league-average play at third base, his production has simply not warranted the millions the team threw his way. So, in the simplest sense, the signing has been a bust.

For me, however, the question is not whether or not Adrian has earned his money thus far. With a starting rotation putting up Coors Field-like ERA's at sea level, this team was simply not going to contend this year even if a healthy Barry Bonds learned to play third base and donned the Compass Rose. So while I'm dissapointed in Beltre's lack of production up to this point, I don't really see it as a tragedy. With or without the 2004 version of Beltre this was a lost season.

What I'm more concerned with is what can we expect in the future. Did we really throw away an average of $14 million away over the next four years, or is there a chance the slugger we signed will come to play in '06 and beyond? Admittedly I'm something of an optimist, but I see plenty of reasons to think that, no, Beltre's '04 was not a fluke, and yes, he will have some greatness in store for us if we're patient.

In fact, there's at least three reasons why I don't think we'll look back at Beltre's contract and say he was a bust - his ability, track record and recent peformance.

Unlike Brady Anderson's breakout year (which is largely looked at as fluke) we're not talking about an average major league talent who all of a sudden started channeling Frank Robinson. Beltre has always had top-drawer talent. In fact, his potential was evident at such an early age the Dodgers signed him out of the Dominican Republic while he was still just 15 (fyi - signing a kid before his 16th birthday happens to be illegal). Originally a shortstop, Beltre was quickly moved to third base where his hands, range and arm formed a lethal combination. Add power, decent speed and the ability to hit for average, and Beltre was a scout's dream. Even after his disapointing years in the majors (which we'll look at shortly), scouts still knew a breakout season was inevitable. He was just TOO good not to be a dominant major leaguer.

Track Record...
This is where there is a lot of confusion about Adrian. Most people simply look at his numbers from season to season and conclude that 2004 was completely out of line with the rest. While the 1.017 OPS is obviously a huge improvement over anything else he posted (as were the 48 HR and 121 RBI, if counting stats are more your style), I don't think it was completely unexpected even from a performance analysis standpoint. Consider that in 2000 he registered an .835 OPS as a 21-year-old with just a year-and-a-half of big league experience (playing in the pitcher's haven of Dodger Stadium, no less), and you can see why so many felt he was destined for greatness.

Then he had the infamous botched appendectomy in the Dominican, nearly lost his life, and returned to the States a shell of his former self. In reality, his 2001 season is pretty amazing considering how sick he was, but it was dissapointing in a pure statistical sense. The infection from the appendectomy caused him to lose weight, which caused him to lose power, which caused him to lose confidence which led to so-so 2002 and 2003 seasons as well. The debate about Beltre basically stems from these three seasons.

Simply looking at the major league numbers would lead you to believe Beltre was just another in the line of overhyped toolsy players who never figured out how to play baseball at a high level. Indeed, when projecting future peformance I would surmise that three (basically) full seasons of mediocrity should outweigh one season of excellence in almost any case. But that means ignoring the horrific medical treatment he received and the long road to recovery he had to travel. Rather than looking at '01-'03 as a symbol of Beltre's ceiling, I look at those years as symptomatic of his potential - if he could be about league average while playing with a colostomy bag, what could he do at 100 percent?

He gave us the answer to that in 2004.

Besides, Beltre's minor league numbers also foretold greatness. Obviously, minor league stats don't mean everything, but they have proven to be a good indicator of major league peformance. And Beltre's minor league stats for his age are incredible. As an 18 year-old at a High-A Vero Beach he posted a .972 OPS, then as a 19 year-old at Double-A San Antonio he smacked pitchers around to the tune of a .998 OPS (Interestingly, in both stops he also had excellent strikeout-to-walk ratios). Then it was off to the big leagues, no time in Triple-A necessary.

Recent Performance...
For many diehard Mariner fans, the first two reasons are simply a rehash of what they already knew - Beltre has always shown he could be very good. What may come as a surprise to even the most serious M's addict, however, is that for the last two months he's shown some serious signs of life. Since June 12, the day he got hurt, Adrian's had just over 199 at-bats (stats through Aug. 19), or roughly one third of a full season's trips to the plate. In that time he has 58 hits, 13 doubles, 10 home runs and 13 walks. That translates to a respectable 291/.334/.515 line (.849 OPS). Over a full season that would roughly equal 39 doubles and 30 long balls.

Okay, so admittedly that's not what the Mariners are paying $11 million for this season. But it's still very good. How good? Consider that an .849 season OPS would be good for second among all American League third baseman who qualify for the batting title, behind some guy in pinstripes named Rodriguez. In other words, Beltre's line for the last two months would put him second to only ARod on the list of AL third sackers if he did it for the whole season (admittedly, he'd be a lot closer to third place than to first). His big problem is that his first two-and-a-half months in the American League were so bad that a look at his season totals yields the perception he's still flopping, even though for the last two months he's been almost what fans expected when the club inked him.

Fourteen million dollars for the second-best third baseman in the AL? Now that doesn't sound quite so bad. The question is, do you trust A) the first 236 AB's or B) the last 199? If you chose A, then you probably believe Beltre's a fraud, a waste and a bust. But if you chose B, you think this thing just might work out.

Combined with the his overall ability and track record, I think it's fairly obvious which option I'm going with. Adrian Beltre will be an All-Star in 2006. And he may even continue to get better after that.

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