No infield dirt around third base

Sox newcomer Beltre is respectful of Lowell

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 14, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — His first question, when he received the call from agent Scott Boras, was, “What about Mike?’’

The Red Sox had called Boras about Adrian Beltre this offseason, inquiring about signing the free agent third baseman, and Boras was passing along the interest. But Mike Lowell was already in Boston, established as the third baseman even with the hip and thumb injuries he sustained over the past few seasons.

Beltre didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how to react.

“I know Mike is good,’’ said Beltre. “I know what type of guy, what type of player he is. I ain’t any better than Mike Lowell, I know that.’’

There were assurances that Lowell wasn’t going to be the starter in Boston, whether or not Beltre signed. Beltre was told that he would play every day — that Lowell was not an option.

He accepted the assurances, and agreed to a risky one-year contract that can turn into two if he fails to recover from a poor 2009 season and can make him a free agent after the season if he returns to form.

He signed, then made a phone call. Beltre reached out to Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez, a former teammate of Beltre’s in Seattle and a workout partner and close friend of Lowell’s in Miami. Beltre wanted to know how to handle the situation. He wanted to do right by the man he would replace.

“I talked to [Ibanez] and said I was thinking about calling Mike before,’’ Beltre said. “He said, ‘Don’t. Just talk to him when you’re in spring training. Mike’s a great dude, and he’ll understand.’ ’’

Ibanez nodded yesterday when asked about the offseason call. He acknowledged the difficulty of the situation, of the new player coming in to take the old player’s job.

“Those are things that you can’t control,’’ Ibanez said. “You can’t look to the left or to the right or behind you. You can only look at what’s right in front of you and control what’s right in front of you.

“I’m sure that both of those guys are going to handle that situation accordingly and only focus on what they can control. They don’t control the situation.’’

Contrast in styles
Their stories are intertwined, the new third baseman and the old. Their lockers are close together. They take ground balls one after the other, inhabiting a spot big enough for only one. A situation that could have bred distrust and strife in a clubhouse has not, from all evidence, though it is clear that, on many days, Lowell would rather be just about anywhere else.

Perhaps that’s because they are, as Ibanez calls them, “two of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.’’

Beltre moves easily around the clubhouse, the transition natural. He does, in many ways, remind one of Lowell, who declined to comment for this story. His English is flawless. He thinks before he talks.

“He’s one of those guys, when you first start talking to him he’s very engaging,’’ said third base/infield coach Tim Bogar, who played with Beltre on the 2001 Dodgers. “You want to be around him. He fits in perfectly with David [Ortiz] and [Kevin Youkilis] and Mikey Lowell and all those guys. He’s always been a real outgoing guy, loves his teammates, is fun to be around.’’

But while they might share similar profiles in the clubhouse, and similar batting averages offensively, it is in their defensive philosophy where they differ. While Lowell has the highest fielding percentage all-time for a third baseman (.974), he has never been viewed as the magician Beltre is. Lowell is reliable, dependable, occasionally spectacular. Beltre is the oohs and the aahs, the YouTube videos.

“Defensively, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,’’ said Ibanez, now in his 15th season. “Best I’ve ever played with, and the best I’ve ever seen, really.’’

“He’s special to watch, covers a lot of ground,’’ Bogar said. “I think he’s one of the best there is.’’

“He’s been blessed with some great instincts at third,’’ said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. “But he takes more ground balls than anybody I’ve ever seen.’’

That is noticeable, as Beltre stands ready on the grass each batting practice in spring training. He nabs baseball after baseball, his hands as impressive as his work ethic.

“I do make a lot of errors,’’ Beltre said. “I’m not the type of guy like I’ve seen Lowell and I’ve seen a lot of guys, they don’t make errors. I do make errors.

“The thing is, I like to get to every place. That’s how you make a lot of errors. Because if I’ve got the ball in my hand, it’s a great chance to get an out. So most likely I’m going to throw it. That’s sometimes stupid, I know. But that’s the type of player I am.’’

Goals well-rounded
Of course, while the defensive accolades are appreciated, that isn’t how Beltre would prefer to define himself. He wants more.

“As a player, I would like to be able to do everything on the field,’’ Beltre said. “I like to play defense, I like to hit for average, I want to hit for power, I want to be able to steal bases, so I want to be what they call ‘five tools,’ that I can do everything on the field. The last couple years, people see more my defense than anything.

“I’m proud of that, but I do want to be a complete package. I want to be able to be known for my offense and my defense.’’

In 11 full seasons in the majors, Beltre’s average is .272, and he averages 22 home runs a season, 80 RBIs, and a .783 OPS. Compare that with his predecessor: Lowell — now slowed by his injuries, in the estimation of the Sox front office — has averaged .280, with 20 homers and 84 RBIs, and an .811 OPS in his 11 full seasons in the majors.

But, for Beltre, there was that shining free agent season, when his offensive brilliance matched that of his defense. In 2004 with the Dodgers, he hit 48 home runs, batted .334, registered an OPS of 1.017. He cashed in, his five-year, $64 million deal with Seattle allowing him the financial freedom to eventually sign with the Sox for a single year.

But that ’04 season also raised questions.

“I’ve been clean all my career,’’ Beltre said when asked about performance-enhancing drugs. “I’m proud of that. If I did it in ’04 when the drug test was already in place, why didn’t I do it again ’cause I didn’t get caught?

“People [are] going to talk. They have reason to. I hit 48, they’re entitled to. I understand that. I know people are going to speculate stuff. I don’t blame anybody for that.’’

It was a season in which everything clicked, everything went right. He started quickly (.353 in April), something that has rarely happened for him. And then he went to Seattle, a park that is hardly kind to hitters.

“That other ballpark is a bear, for everyone, but for him in particular,’’ Ibanez said. “He hits a lot of long drives to that big part of the field, left-center, even to left field that are outs. In Seattle, they’re outs.’’

In Fenway? Maybe not.

What-if game
But what if he does start slowly again? What if he bottoms out in April, his bat sluggish and his offense nonexistent? What if Lowell remains with the team, a looming presence on the bench?

Beltre’s honesty, when asked whether he could end up looking over his shoulder, is refreshing.

“I don’t know,’’ he said. “It’s a good question. But it can happen.’’

He added, “If I start slow and then [Francona] decides to put in Mike, what am I going to do? I’m not hitting. If he’s there playing third, physically I lost the job. It’s not like they’re giving it out.

“This is baseball. It’s going to happen. I’ve been in the situation before.’’

His disappointing 2009 season (8 HRs, 44 RBIs in 111 games) he attributes to shoulder surgery that didn’t actually fix what it was designed to fix. And that certainly could lead to doubts. Especially with Lowell behind him.

“I don’t think it’s going to affect him one bit because he’s so confident in his ability,’’ Bogar said. “He wants to succeed. The bottom line is he knows that it’s not going to happen overnight if he’s going bad. He’s going to figure it out and he’s going to come around.’’

And even with Lowell’s presence, Beltre signed here. He knows why he did, why he opened himself and Lowell to the queries and the controversy. Because it was different with Seattle, where they were “hoping to get to the playoffs,’’ Beltre said. “Hoping. Here, it’s different because you don’t hope. Playoffs is a failure. World Series is the main goal.

“I have accomplished a lot in my career, more than I expected when I came up to the big leagues. I’ve been in the big leagues for 11 years, and so far I’ve had good seasons, I’ve had some disappointing seasons. But, in the end, I want to say that I won a championship.’’

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