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When he was a freshman in high school, the 130-pound kid from Santo Domingo turned heads with his whip-crack swing and cannon arm. Legendary LA Dodger scout Ralph Avila, who signed Pedro Martinez in 1988, had never seen anything like it.
Despite Major League Baseball rules strictly prohibiting deals with any players under 16, Avila convinced the Dodgers getting to the kid first would be worth any punishment Commissioner Bud Selig could come up with. He was that good.
One doctored birth certificate and $23,000 later, 15-year-old Adrian Beltre signed as an amateur free agent with Los Angeles. In 1996, Beltre’s first season in low single-A, the Dodgers saw why Avila was so willing to break MLB rules: Beltre blasted 26 home runs and knocked in 99 RBI in 131 games with a .284 average to boot. He was 17 years old.
For three years, Beltre raked in the minors, posting a combined .307 AVG, .394 OBP, .551 SLG, and .946 OPS. In 323 games between low single-A and AA, he popped 66 home runs and knocked in 262—all before he turned 20. Baseball America named him the No. 3 prospect in the game and in 1998, Adrian Beltre made his debut in Chavez Ravine as the crown jewel of the Dodger’s scouting system and the future of baseball in Los Angeles.
Chalk it up to rookie jitters. That’s how Dodgers brass reassured themselves after Beltre’s unspectacular debut. The kid hit just .215 in 195 at bats with a .278 OBP and .369 slugging. The normally rock solid fielder even made 13 errors in just 54 starts at third. But hey, he was still just 19, a babe in the Major League woods.
The pressure began to mount in 1999 when Bud Selig discovered Adrian Beltre was a year younger than the Dodgers claimed. The commissioner’s justice was swift: for signing a 15-year-old kid, Avila was banned from baseball for a year, and the Dodgers were hit with a $50,000 fine and not allowed within 300-feet of the Dominican Republic for 12 months. Beltre was allowed to remain a Dodger, but the second year big-leaguer now had an even greater weight on his shoulders to perform.
Considering the circumstances, Beltre responded spectacularly, posting a .275/.352/.428 line in 538 at bats, a huge improvement over his rookie season. ‘He’s getting there,’ the Dodgers reasoned. A couple more seasons and he’ll be raking like he did in the minors.
But he never did. Despite showing flashes of the potential that made the Dodger’s risk their entire Dominican baseball operation, Beltre never broke through during his first five full years in the Majors, posting a respectable but unspectacular .265 AVG, .323 OBP, .432 SLG, .755 OPS, 18 HR, 73 RBI average line. And his big step back in 2003, .240 AVG, .290 OBP, .424 SLG, .714 OPS, made most in the organization and tired-of-waiting fans think Beltre would never come close to living up to the hype. The Dodgers even made Beltre the centerpiece in a number of a trade offers (reportedly offering the Red Sox Beltre and catcher Paul Lo Duca in exchange for homophobe Shea Hillenbrand and Jason Varitek), but no one would bite.
Then, 2004 happened. Like the MLB version of Ash from “Army of Darkness,” Beltre held up his bat and declared, “You see this? This is my boom stick!” and proceeded to blast 48 home runs, knock in 121, and post a ridiculous 1.017 OPS. At 25, Beltre topped Albert Pujols to finish second in MVP voting to Barry Bonds. The kid had arrived. Avila was vindicated. There were no more questions. This was the Adrian Beltre the Dodgers risked so much for. This was the player fans hoped for. There was only one problem for LA: 2004 was Beltre’s contract year. Cue the plunger-muffled trumpet.
The Seattle Mariners, flush with cash and in desperate need of a hitter to anchor their lineup and drive in Ichiro Suzuki, quickly got in line to sign Adrian Beltre. The team did their due diligence before offering a five-year, $65 million contract. Beltre’s minor league stats, .307 AVG, .394 OBP, .551 SLG, and .946 OPS, served as evidence his 2004 explosion, .334 AVG, .388 OBP, .629 SLG, and 1.017 OPS, wasn’t just an enormous flash in the pan. The kid simply fulfilled the potential so many other scouts, coaches, and players had seen in him. And he was still only 25 years old.
One question remained for Seattle: how much of an impact would playing at cavernous Safeco Field have on the right-handed power hitter? In 2004, Safeco ranked as the second worst park in the Majors for hitters according to Park Factor. However, Dodger Stadium wasn’t much better, ranking as the seventh worst for hitters. And for home runs in particular, Dodger Stadium and Safeco Field ranked in a statistical dead heat, with Safeco actually yielding more home runs per game than Dodger Stadium in 2004.
Seattle’s reasoning was clear: Beltre did it in the minors, ultimately becoming the third highest rated prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America. At age 25, he was finally doing it in the majors, and in one of the worst hitters’ parks in the league. Seattle thought it knew exactly who Adrian Beltre was and what he would do in a Mariners uniform.
By his third season in Seattle, Mariners fans had seen enough of Adrian Beltre. The pronouncement came in a 2007 Seattle Times article:
Frustrated Mariners fans, in angry calls and e-mails to media and talk shows, have focused much of their anxiety on Adrian Beltre. They have seen the 27-year-old third baseman has fallen off from his fab form of 2004 with the Dodgers, and decided he was juiced.
The article goes on to quote a number of people from the Dodgers and Mariners organizations, players and personnel alike, who to a man say Beltre would never do such a thing. He’s too bright, too hard working, and too damn honest to do such a thing, they all claim. However, statistical evidence suggests accusations of performance enhancers aren’t without merit.
Beltre’s first five seasons with the Dodgers, less his 77-game rookie season:
.265 AVG, .323 OBP, .432 SLG, .755 OPS, 18 HR, 73 RBI
.334 AVG, .388 OBP, .629 SLG, 1.017 OPS, 48 HR, 121 RBI
Beltre’s five seasons in Seattle:
.266 AVG, .317 OBP, .442 SLG, .759 OPS, 21 HR, 79 RBI
At this point, it doesn’t matter why Beltre out-performed his career averages by such a wide margin in 2004, it’s simply important to recognize he’s not that type of hitter. There are 10 MLB seasons worth of stats to prove it.
In early January, Boston inked Beltre to a one-year, $9 million contract with a club option for 2011, effectively replacing their hobbled 36-year-old gold glove third baseman with a younger, cheaper version of himself.
Those who argue Fenway’s cozy confines (eighth most friendly hitters’ park) will provide an ample boost to Beltre’s power numbers could be right. More than likely they are not. Beltre will be facing superior pitching on a regular basis in the AL East, and an eerily similar player provides statistical evidence the move will have little impact: Mike Lowell.
A career .280 AVG, .343 OBP, .468 SLG, .810 OPS hitter, Lowell came to Fenway from the fifth worst hitters’ park in MLB, Sun Life Stadium, when he was 31 years old. During his first season in Boston, Fenway gave Lowell’s career offensive numbers a barely noticeable boost: .284 AVG, .339 OBP, .475 SLG, .814 OPS.
So what can the Red Sox expect from the kid from Santo Domingo? Barring a miraculous replay of his 2004 felony assault on Major League pitching, Beltre will post his clockwork .266 AVG, .320 OBP, .437 SLG, .757 OPS, 20 HR, 76 RBI line while contributing gold glove defense. And that’s exactly what the Red Sox paid for.
The Dodgers hoped they were getting a future superstar when they signed Beltre as a 15-year-old, and Seattle was sure of it when they offered the 25-year-old $13 million a year for five years. Both organizations missed the mark. The overwhelming statistical evidence, complied over 10 years in two very similar ballparks, tells us exactly who Adrian Beltre is, and that’s the player the Red Sox signed and plan on seeing in 2010.