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Adrian Beltre remains a blast to watch

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  October 24, 2011 12:43 PM

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I suspect, based on local television ratings, feedback, and a lifetime spent among Red Sox fans, that some among us checked out on the baseball season right around the time Robert Andino's line drive narrowly avoided Carl Crawford's glove in the ninth inning of the 162d game of the season.

It's hardly breaking news that we can turn parochial around here, especially when there's off-the-field melodrama to fill the Red Sox void once the season is complete.There's been so much going on with the Sox, both crucial to the franchise's future (the departure of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona) and more or less meaningless beyond 2011 (the antics of the Popeye's Three) that a spellbinding World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers has been relegated to an afterthought, an unnecessary punctuation mark on a baseball season that for many ended 26 days ago in Baltimore.

But all of the bones from the Red Sox' collapse have been picked clean at this point. And with the capable, deserving Ben Cherington set to be named general manager tomorrow and reports surfacing that demanding John Farrell is coveted as Francona's replacement, the Red Sox appear to be on their way to recovering from this mess in an encouraging way.

So forget about them, if you can, until . . . well, at least tomorrow, when the Epstein/Cherington press conferences will take place, and set aside a few hours tonight to watch the fifth game of this World Series between two fascinating and similar teams. I guarantee that if Game 5 is anything like the first four, when we've seen such feats as Albert Pujols channeling Mr. October '78 and Derek Holland channeling Steve Avery '91, you'll be hooked for the duration. And if you must have a Red Sox angle to it all, well, there is an intriguing one, and it comes with a delicious side dish that many Sox fans can't resist: a large helping of hindsight.

With retrospection as part of my defense, I'll admit it: I wish the Red Sox still had Adrian Beltre. I recognize that there are several reasons why they don't, and they are virtually all sound reasons. Their Plan A was to acquire Adrian Gonzalez and move Kevin Youkilis back to third base. Youkilis was arguably the better bet entering the 2011 season, a slightly older, slightly more durable, equally hard-nosed player who had seven consecutive years of trending upward in OPS. And for all of the suggestions late this season that the two departed lineup anchors from 2010 -- Beltre and Victor Martinez, another admirable ball player and teammate -- were superior alternatives to Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the two high-priced stars who were brought in during the offseason, the reality is that Gonzalez is the most valuable player of the four (which is supported by Gonzalez's 6.9 to 5.2 rWAR advantage this season).

santoronfinn1024.jpgBeltre was just a special guest star here in Boston. Given that Epstein has coveted Gonzalez since he scouted him in high school while working for the Padres, it's apparent in retrospect -- as it was at the time, really -- that Beltre was a one-year bridge to getting Gonzalez. As fun as it was to watch Beltre ferociously play third base and bash 32 homers and look like he was going to maim Martinez when he rubbed his head, the Red Sox' reasoning in letting him go was logical. Had the Sox dealt Youkilis, whose value was lowered by the Greek God of Increasingly Weird Injuries' thumb ailment, and signed Beltre to the five-year, $80 million contract the Rangers gave him, there would have been a lot of puzzled fans in Boston, and they would have been puzzled loudly.

But watching Beltre for his one year with the Red Sox was a blast, and should you need a reminder of that, you'll almost certainly get one if you tune in for the remainder of the series. During his season with the Sox, Beltre was very good defensively, but not quite as spectacular as advertised or as his first-place finish in the 2008 Fielding Bible awards and runner-up finish in '09 would suggest. But he has been at his dazzling best defensively in the Series -- one got the sense last night that Holland would have been perfectly content with having every righthanded hitter pull the ball in the direction of Beltre or shortstop Elvis Andrus. Since they actually benefit from it, his teammates must love watching him play third base more than fans do, right?

The guy is such a unique player -- there are countless sluggers who swing from their heels, but I've never seen anyone but Beltre swing from a knee. He's nothing at all like his top comp in baseball history, Vinny Castilla. Any similarity is due entirely to Castilla's Coors Field-padded statistics. Conversely, Beltre's numbers were stunted during his five seasons playing at Safeco Field, a graveyard for long drives hit by righthanded batters. Yet he hit at least 25 homers three times for the Mariners, and during each one of his five seasons there, his road OPS surpassed his home OPS, twice by more than 110 points. If anything is to be gathered from his Mariners numbers, it's that the notion that he plays well only in contract years has always been a myth -- his worst season was his last, which is one reason he became the Red Sox' bargain. The truth is that he's an exceptional player when he's healthy, but he's not always healthy because he plays so damn hard.

Forget the Castilla nonsense. There's a more interesting comparison to Beltre on his list of players who are most similar by age. Ron Santo is Beltre's top comp from each from ages 21-29 and again at 31 and 32. Many baseball aficionados regard the former Cubs third baseman as one of Cooperstown's most egregious oversights -- in his 15 years on the ballot, the most support he received from writers came in his final year of eligibility, when he got 43.1 percent of the vote in 1998. It's possible that Beltre sometimes finds himself in a similar situation.

While the perception of his career at the moment is that he's not in the Hall of Fame class of player, he has 2,033 hits and 310 homers at age 32. Perhaps his career will be shortened because of his fearless style of play, but if he's close to the player at the end of his contract that he is now, he's going to approach 400 homers and 3,000 hits, and those numbers are back to being the benchmarks for historical greatness in the post-steroid era.

From afar, it will be fun to watch Adrian Beltre in the coming years to see if he carves his place in history. Just as it was fun to watch him do his thing for a year here, and everything he can to become a champion now.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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