Before Beltre was Beltre

Wednesday, January 5, 2011 dawned much like it’s counterpart seven years hence over the Ballpark. Warmer in terms of climate (46 degrees) but cooler in the hearts of Rangers fans.

Rangers’ fans simmering spirits of October—which had ended in an unprecedented World Series appearance – albeit a loss in 5 games to the dawn of the “Even-Year Giants”—were cooling faster than the temperatures in a sunny Metroplex. Things were glowing, still, but trending down thanks to a single move.

Cliff Lee—the workhorse of the Rangers’ World Series run, and the man for whom fans feared they’d sacrificed a pair of future cornerstones in Justin Smoak and Blake Beavan – had signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in mid-December.

If the Rangers wanted to repeat, they needed to do something big. Every option was explored. Free agent arms and trade-ready starters were poked and prodded.

And then, before the sun had set on that mild January day in Arlington, Jon Daniels had finally answered. Oh, how he answered.

Not with an ace, but with an icon. But could we really understand it then?

 

Jon Daniels and the Rangers braintrust had just countered the loss of a premium arm with the gain of a position player, and one with questions: one Adrian Beltre, late of peppering the Green Monster for a season in Boston.

The Rangers made, with Scott Boras no less, a fair deal, a square deal, and what was, in hindsight, a bargain of a deal that landed a member of the team’s imagined Rushmore.

Beltre’s credentials at the time were far from set. His glove was, undoubtedly, already renowned as Gold Glove-caliber, if not perennially. His bat, after a roller-coaster ride in Seattle’s wide coastal spaces, had settled into the confines of hitter-friendly Fenway just fine. For a season. And Adrian Beltre had had seasons. He’d just never strung two together.

So, were we dreaming of the same, or wondering if he’d settle back to Seattle’s middling days? Over five years in the land of the seafarers, he’d averaged .266/.317/.442, with two Gold Gloves but nary an All-Star appearance or Top 20 MVP finish.

What did the pundits say? What was the Rangers spin? And what did the man himself have to say about all these boots and Texas stars now piling on the expectations?

First, remember where things were in 2011.

Beltre wasn’t the Beltre Rangers fans have come to revere as Captain Clutch, the carrier of the offensive load. Far from clockwork consistent, he had a reputation as a contract-year player, having broken out in Los Angeles with a .334/.388/.629 line, 48 homers, and 121 RBIs in his last season with the Dodgers in 2004. Then, with the Mariners, Beltre had up and down seasons, peaking in 2007 and then fighting injuries throughout his injury-prone 2009.

Boston took a gamble that it was more injuries and environment (Seattle is a notorious pitchers park, of course; Boston, not so much) and gave him a one-year deal. He responded; he was coming off an All-Star .321/.365/.553 campaign, with 28 homers, 102 RBI, and a 9th-place MVP finish.

Jamey Newberg pointed out one of the major advantages of Beltre: despite an inconsistent track record and the burden of Scott Boras as an agent, he was a defensive upgrade, which is another way to deal with the loss of the likes of Cliff Lee’s soft-contact stuff and ability to keep men off base:

“Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan said in the aftermath of the World Series that their primary objective this off-season was to put together a stronger roster going into spring training than they had in 2010. With the loss of Lee and the refusal to meet whatever Kansas City’s demands were for Zack Greinke, the hope is that Brandon Webb can help provide a rotation upgrade compared to the one Texas broke camp with last year. But it certainly can’t be expected to measure up to the starting five the club finished the season with.

Another way, however, to improve your pitching is to make the defense better, something the Rangers have done a good job of the last couple years and are doing once again with the addition of Beltre, one of the best third basemen in baseball. Texas may now have the best left side of the infield anywhere, and one of the elite defenses in the game across the board.”

In that winter after an offense-driven pennant run, the Rangers hadn’t focused on Beltre. They’d gone hard after arms, with the cornerstone being Lee; they reportedly offered him a 6-year, $138M contract, while he took less money and fewer years (5 years, $120 million) to form a juggernaut staff of arms with Philadelphia.

Hindsight fares us well on that one, but then, I know I wasn’t opposed to giving six years to Lee; he was Lee. He didn’t live off the fastball, and control wasn’t something that fades quickly with age, as often does speed. Lee used deception and command, as much as pure stuff, to win. I was willing, given his recent pedigree with the Rangers and track record in Cleveland, to bank on some down back-end years for three or four All-Star seasons.

On losing in the Lee sweepstakes, the Rangers first regrouped by going hard for more arms. They kicked tires on a trade for the breakout arm of Grienke, not found a suitable deal waiting, and settled on a wing and a prayer for Webb. Neither the wing nor the prayer took flight; Webb never saw another MLB inning after 2009.

Besides losing Lee, the Rangers had just gone to the World Series with their unquestioned leader on the field and in the clubhouse, Michael Young, having moved around the diamond twice before: to shortstop to make way for Alfonso Soriano in 2011, with the trade of Alex Rodriguez, then, again, to third base to open the way for the pairing of young second-sacker Ian Kinsler with a rookie shortstop, Elvis Andrus, in 2009.

Much of the local and national coverage focused on what would become of Young, and how he’d react to the Betre news. Per the AP report from Stephen Hawkins:

“Beltre said he called Young, the Rangers’ longest-tenured player going into his 11th season.

‘I have a huge respect for Michael,’ Beltre said. ‘Him willing to do that for me, it means a lot.’

Beltre wouldn’t discuss what was said in what he called a private conversation, but when asked if that included thanking Young, Beltre responded with a slight smile and nod.

‘In that vein of winning and team-first mentality … what one of our stalwarts and franchise players in Michael Young has agreed to do to make the team better really speaks to that,’ Daniels said.

The 34-year-old Young, who has three years and about $48 million left on his contract, will become a designated hitter while playing a utility role.

‘It’s clear that I want to play with the Rangers,’ Young said. ‘I’m willing to make some pretty big sacrifices in order to do that. Obviously, this is pretty significant in terms of my career path.’”

Young (as he would continually do throughout the discussions on Beltre) doubled down on his team-first bet:

“Young said he will do whatever he has to do to stay in the lineup every day after finally going to the playoffs after 1,508 career regular-season games, all with Texas.

‘I’ve heard a lot of ‘good jobs’ since the season ended, but it still stings to lose it,’ Young said. ’It makes you a little hungry to go back and win it. … I definitely haven’t gotten over the fact that we lost the World Series. But I think I’m appreciative of the ride that we had to get there.’”

MLBTradeRumors’ Ben Nicholson-Smith noting the impact to Adrian’s future BFF Andrus, as well as the elimination of a noted nemesis (and, for what it’s worth, a pretty good precursor to his future production for the Rangers) with his stats against the Rangers:

“The left side of the Rangers’ infield should improve when Beltre joins defensive whiz Elvis Andrus. Since Andrus became a regular in 2009, he ranks seventh among MLB shortstops in UZR/150 and Beltre ranks second among MLB third baseman for that same time period. Beltre has had his highs (’04 and ’10 stand out) and lows (’01, ’05, ’09) at the plate, but he has been an above average hitter and defender more often than not.

Beltre joins the defending American League champions on what will presumably be the last major contract of his career (he’ll be at least 36 when the deal expires). For what it’s worth, Beltre has a career .306/.336/.521 line in 229 plate appearances in Texas.”

The Red Sox fan blog coverage at MassLive had no major problem saying goodbye to Beltre, despite his solid year for Boston. The concern (as legit now as it was then) was the length of the deal. The article’s main premise turned out to be one of foreboding for the Sox, as it hinted at a departure of both Beltre and future All-Star and MVP runner-up (in 2014) Victor Martinez in the light of two of the franchise’s worst signings in their post-curse decade of dominance, which saw titles in 2004, 2007, and 2013:

“..Beltre’s official departure from the Sox deserves to be marked with a respectful tip of the cap, considering how well his one-year, $10 million deal with the team worked out for both sides.

Consider this: For virtually the same price it would have cost to keep Beltre and free agent catcher Victor Martinez in Boston, the Sox now have (Adrian) Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, two of the game’s most dynamic offensive players. They lost three prospects and their own first-round draft pick in the process, but replaced them with four additional picks…”

They knew, for sure, what they were giving up. This section could have been a fitting summary of Belte’s career with the Rangers overall, adjusted for stats:

“… Simply put, he was the best third baseman in the major leagues last season, playing his usual stellar defense while also leading all third sackers in batting average (.321), slugging percentage (.553), OPS (.919) and doubles (a major-league leading 49).

…Beltre will leave behind a legacy for playing all-out for a team that spun its wheels after (Kevin) Youkilis, Martinez, Dustin Pedroia and others sustained major injuries. There’s also his scalding line drives, his fantastic head-rub temper tantrums … and his monstrous home runs hit while swinging hard enough to fall to his back knee.”

Few would have seen Adrian age as gracefully as he would, with 2017 his lone Ranger season so far without a Top-15 MVP finish (due to, finally, the ravages of age and injury):

Beltre noted the team’s quality, again per the AP report:

“We all know that the Rangers have a really good team. I want to win,” Beltre said. “The team is willing to do whatever it takes to get to the next step. That’s one of the factors to make my decision to come here easier.”

Think about all the ways this could have gone south. Look at the Top 50 free agents for that season at MLBTradeRumors. Would you really take ANY of those guys, over the last 7 years, versus Beltre? It’s not even CLOSE.

When have the Rangers ever made that good of a short- and long-term call?

Signing Ivan Rodriguez to his mid-season 1997 extension, instead of trading him? Even that falls short, in my mind.

The Rafael Palmeiro trade in 1988’s offseason might be as solid a franchise move as they’d made before that, but letting him go to Baltimore in 1993 for Will Clark was, in my book, always a bad move. I know Clark was integral to the 1996-1999 consistent West winners/contenders. But I’ll always believe Palmeiro would have had the Rangers just as stable in the clubhouse, and that he’d have surely been a better contributor on the field.

In my mind, there’s only one contender for the franchise’s best-ever move, at least in my lifetime: On July 19, 2000, the Blue Jays were trying to hang in the Wild Card and East race, and needed a starter. The Rangers had little need for Esteban Loaiza, sitting at 41-42 and last in the AL West.

They managed to wrangle a deal for a young pitching prospect, Darwin Cubillán, who went nowhere; and a minor league second baseman, Michael Young, who ended up being better than OK. That, to me, is the franchise’s best move.

In my book, Belte’s signing is second, followed, in some order, by the Pudge extension; the December 1988 Nolan Ryan signing; and the Cliff Lee trade in 2010 with Seattle, which was the driving force to that first World Series.

In time, we may see the Cole Hamels trade slip into that slot. A lot depends on if there’s one more run left in this team, as it’s made up, and what comes of the pieces we gave up, with Jorge Alfaro still the Phillies’ presumed backstop of the future.

So, while you bask in the sun after the freeze, think back and say a small thanks for a big move 7 years ago—one that turned around an offseason, added the key cog to a repeat pennant winner, and changed the history of fandom’s idolatry forever.

 

Someday, not long from now, we’ll all gather at Globe Life Field for an unveiling.

Elvis Andrus will be there, geeking around and possibly teaming up with old teammates to prank Michael Young with some clown costume. Jeff Banister may not be managing the club by then, but if things go right, he’ll be there, too. JD will, as well, although I wouldn’t reserve a spot just yet for Nolan. Chuck Morgan and Eric Nadel will master the ceremonies together. A region’s legion of fans, most of whom were crushed over the loss of a left arm in 2011’s darker months, will instead be cheering a franchise’s right-hand man.

And Adrian Beltre will step to a microphone in front of a full likeness of himself—maybe in full backswing, undoubtedly down on one knee—cast in bronze.

It began seven years ago, and continues still, because a team and a man never lost sight of the prize: winning the last game of a historic autumn.

And we’ll stand around a man in bronze, larger than life but somehow still smaller than the man himself, and thunder cheers across the Field that Beltre Built, as the greatest pennant rises and the tears rain down.

They’ll get there someday—if not Beltre’s Rangers, then a team undeniably shaped by him.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington. Along with John Manaloor, he co-owns Shutdown Inning, and serves as Editor in Chief for SDI.
He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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