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Adrian Beltre Isn't the Problem
2003-04-15 09:41
by Jon Weisman

Teeth bared, eyes flaring, nostrils quivering, claws pincing, elbows doing that funky chicken thing, the wolves are out for Adrian Beltre.

Two weeks into the season, Beltre is batting .204 with a team-high four errors. In this lousy economy, you could call him a walking Nasdaq, except Beltre's stopped walking. With only two free passes in 13 games, his on-base percentage is .245.

You don't need any more of the backstory from me. Everyone knows he's still only 24. Everyone is tired of waiting for him to improve. Everyone looks at him and sees regression. You don't need stats for that latter observation - almost every time I've seen him at the plate this year, he's looked out of his element - unless that element is Flailium.

Beltre calls to mind a weaker Raul Mondesi, a gifted but flawed player who seemed to give up on mitigating those flaws - the difference being that Mondesi's plateau was much higher than Beltre's. Admittedly, we're not talking Everest here in either case.

I understand the frustration with Beltre. But I don't see the point of fans or the media knocking him without offering proposals - reasonable, considered proposals - about what to do about him.

The first option is - swallow hard - continue waiting.

As I illustrated on February 25, it is not unusual for a player on Beltre's career path to regress after a promising start, and still turn things around in time to have a lengthy All-Star career.

Also, as difficult as it is to keep in mind, we are only two weeks into the season. People need to chill out. This is too soon to give up on a player, even one you're most impatient with. One year ago today, Shawn Green was batting .229 with two home runs, two doubles and four walks. At the plate, he looked like Mr. Magoo. (What's eerie is, he talked like him, too...)

You want to bench Beltre for a couple of days and try to get him settled, focused, scared, energized, lobotomized? Fine.

However, if you're going to give up on him, you had better have either:

-a better replacement in mind and, and, and the means to get him.
-or, the willingness to give up on the season.

A better replacement, as if I need to say it, does not mean Ron Coomer - and it didn't mean Tyler Houston in 2002. To replace Beltre with a better player would almost certainly require the Dodgers to trade one of their good starting pitchers. No, not Andy Ashby. You have to be willing to give up Hideo Nomo or Odalis Perez along with Beltre to get that new third baseman. I might give up Nomo, just because he's further along in his career, for an exceptional player. In which case, Ashby becomes your fifth starter, and you move on. That's risky business.

The other alternative is to trade Beltre for good prospects, move Alex Cora to share third base with Coomer and bring up Joe Thurston to play second base. Sacrifice this season to build for the future. I'm willing to do this too, but somehow, I don't suspect those who have been unable to endure the needlepricks of the first two weeks will endorse this kind of open-heart surgery.

Look, the Dodgers don't have a good offense. They just don't. They didn't have one in March when guys like Coomer and Terry Shumpert and Calvin Murray batted .350, and they probably won't have one in September. Beltre and Fred McGriff will certainly improve over the course of the season, but at the same time, Paul Lo Duca ain't gonna hit .364 all year. Everyone will find their level, more or less. And that level, collectively, is somewhere around Death Valley. Badwater Basin.

These are the Los Angeles Dodgers. We can cry all we want about not increasing the payroll to sign Jim Thome, but the fact is, it's not unreasonable for a team that has allocated $117 million on a year's worth of salaries, for good or for ill, to want to draw the line somewhere.

I still believe in Adrian Beltre. I don't see how you can't. He might never become Mike Schmidt, but I look at him and I still see a 24-year-old with potential, and who even now is, at worst, the fourth-best hitter on this entire team.

Beltre isn't the problem. Beltre is a symptom of the 2 Million Leagues Under the Sea that the Dodgers sunk as an organization and how protracted the surfacing process is. If the Dodgers could do better than Beltre, they would. But they mortgaged their future several years ago with ill-fated trades and salary commitments - Kevin Malone and others driving the team off a cliff like James Dean - and this is the picture of a team paying that debt.

Any winning that comes during this period will be an unexpected dividend. It could happen - you can't name four other teams that are guaranteed to take all four National League playoff spots. But it's just not going to be that easy, or likely.

Sure, be upset when Beltre dives like Mondesi at a 3-2 pitch a foot off the plate with the tying runs on base. But don't let it take you off the cliff - and hope that it doesn't take Dan Evans off the cliff either.

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