Beltre’s a Keeper, but Riches Will Beckon

Adrian Beltre insists he isn’t thinking about it, but how can he escape it?

The chant of M-V-P is now heard with regularity at Dodger Stadium, an appropriate accompaniment to his own anvil chorus in a breakout season of consistency, maturity and acknowledged leadership.

If Beltre can apply the finishing touch, enhancing statistics that are among the National League’s best and driving the Dodgers to a West Division title, if he can continue to delay surgery on the bone spur in his left ankle, he has a legitimate shot at the coveted hardware that is the most-valuable-player award, as well as the hard cash that comes with free agency.

The Dodgers have been waiting for this April-to-October season from their third baseman.


Now that it’s here, there is a question as to how much longer Beltre will be here.

Through contract expirations and the recent arbitration-avoiding trades, the Dodgers will have close to $30 million in new financial flexibility next year, but there is still no certainty as to which direction owner Frank McCourt intends to take the payroll and no guarantee he can satisfy Beltre and Odalis Perez, who also is eligible for free agency, while trying to sidestep another arbitration battle with Eric Gagne.

In the case of Beltre, who is making $5 million this year, General Manager Paul DePodesta recently told agent Scott Boras that the club wants to discuss a new contract when the season ends.

Boras, however, can be excused for salivating at the prospect of escorting a 25-year-old third baseman approaching 40 home runs and 100 runs batted in to market. There is virtually no way Beltre will make a premature decision to stay with the Dodgers without first gathering competitive leverage.

“There just haven’t been many cases when an infielder of that caliber becomes eligible for free agency that early in his career,” Boras said, unable to come up with any names beyond those of Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Derek Jeter and now Beltre. “Those are special players whom the industry has honored with long-term contracts.”

Rodriguez, of course, signed a 10-year, $252-million contract with the Texas Rangers. The New York Yankees retained Jeter for nine years at $175 million. Tejada signed with the Baltimore Orioles for six years at $72 million.

Get the drift?

Beltre certainly does, but the prospect of holiday riches -- always an enticing motivation -- hasn’t disrupted his immediate focus of helping the Dodgers reach the playoffs.

Shy of taking the mound in an effort to ease the club’s pitching crises, Beltre has tried to do and be just about everything else -- cheerleader, peacemaker, clutch performer -- to the extent that Manager Jim Tracy doesn’t hesitate to contribute to his off-season sales pitch, citing his growth as a leader and player.

“Call it maturity,” Tracy said. “Adrian Beltre knows now who he is and what he’s capable of as a player and person that his peers look up to in every way.

“I mean, he’s become the type guy who wants the game to find him when it’s on the line, and he continues to deliver. He has a chance to be something special for a long time.”

Ignoring his agent’s May recommendation that he sacrifice a month of a season that figured to be critical to his free-agent earning potential and have the spur removed when the pain was most intense, Beltre chose to stand and deliver.

The spur could still break loose at any time, but the pain has eased with treatment, and Beltre, who also is coping with a tender right thigh muscle, is batting .330 with a major-league leading 38 home runs -- a franchise record for third basemen -- and 87 RBIs.

The Dodgers are 33-14 since July 1, and Beltre is batting .367 in 54 games since June 15, with 23 homers and 47 RBIs.

Responding to batting coach Tim Wallach, Beltre has consistently displayed discipline in his pitch selection and used the whole field -- perhaps showing more power to right than any right-handed-hitting Dodger since Mike Piazza.

If that focus wasn’t always there in the past, if the first half of almost every season -- to use his own word -- tended to be mediocre, critics tended to overlook how Beltre was fast-tracked through double A, skipped triple A and found himself in Los Angeles at 19 amid a new culture and suffocating expectations. Although Beltre did have three seasons of 20 or more home runs and 75 or more RBIs before this year, club officials were prepared to trade him any number of times and resistant to a multiyear deal.

Was all of that unfair? Is he motivated by past criticism?

“People expected more from me, and I expected more as well,” Beltre said, “but I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone other than that I can be consistent from start to finish. I want to have that kind of season, and I still have a ways to go.”

To this point, it has been an MVP-caliber season that should put him at the top of the ballot with Barry Bonds, who owns the award and is again having isolated impact on the success of the San Francisco Giants, and Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols, who have far more help in the St. Louis Cardinal lineup.

The MVP represents more than statistics, and Beltre credits daughter Cassandra, born in February, for contributing to a sense of peace and calm that has manifested itself in increased displays of leadership in the clubhouse and restraint on the field, controlling teammates on the verge of losing restraint.

“Adrian plays with emotion and passion, but he has the intellect to overcome the heat of the moment, to collect himself and help others who may be giving in to the heat,” Boras said. “You’re often judged in this game on the basis of how well you professionally manage yourself.”

When it comes to judging Beltre in 2004, the best measure may be the extent of competition the Dodgers seem certain to face in trying to retain him.