Adrian Beltre wanted the Rangers to know what they were getting when the two were talking contract in the winter before the 2011 season. And so Beltre relayed a brief but telling anecdote to manager Ron Washington. "He told a story about Terry Francona," Washington says now. "Francona took him out of the lineup, and Beltre went into his office and told Francona, 'I'll let you know when I don't want to play.'" Message delivered. Beltre likes to play, and he's as averse to coming out of the lineup as he is to teammates touching his head.
Washington remembered that message throughout 2011. The first time he gave Beltre a day off, he told him, "Just go ahead and kick my butt, because I'm not changing my lineup." The next time, when Beltre approached Washington to contest the day off, Washington literally got down on his knees, begging Beltre to back off. "Beltre's cool," Washington says with a smile, "as long as he's playing." This season, the 33-year-old Beltre hasn't fought Washington nearly as much, provided the "day off" means a day in the designated hitter spot and not a day on the bench. And Beltre's 16 starts at DH have helped him stay healthy, stay fresh and stay productive in the heart of the Rangers' lineup. Over the past 10 games, he's been a force, belting five homers and batting .381 with a 1.252 OPS. Combine Beltre's offensive numbers -- a .316 average (fifth in the league), .902 OPS (eighth), 30 homers (tied for seventh), 89 RBIs (seventh) and 90 runs created (tied for ninth) -- with his dazzling defense at the hot corner, and he is, once again and unsurprisingly, one of the game's most valuable commodities. "It's one of my best years," Beltre says, "but I still have a long way to go. I've been able to stay consistent, which is one of the things I wanted to do. I wanted to try not to get into deep slumps. My team is in first place, so ... so far, it has been good. But this is not it." No, what will ultimately define this Rangers season, after consecutive World Series heartbreaks in 2010 and '11, is whether they win it all. But they are on top of an improved American League West in large part because of what Beltre has done on the field and in the cleanup spot, and that combination of skills has made him every bit as valuable to Texas as Josh Hamilton is. "We have a couple guys in that lineup that stir the drink," Washington says. "Beltre's one of them. He's my No. 4 hitter, and he's a pro. He shows up to the ballpark not only to do his job, but also to beat his opponents. And he does it. He's a gamer, and he makes everyone else around him a gamer." In many respects, Beltre has strengthened his reputation around the game with the way he's played for the Rangers the past two seasons. Texas gave Beltre a five-year, $80 million contract largely on the basis of his one sparkling season with the Red Sox in 2010, when he hit .321 with 28 homers, a league-leading 49 doubles and 102 RBIs. But while that season did plenty to repair Beltre's open-market value after five ho-hum seasons in the batter's abyss of Safeco Field, it also paired with his 2004 output with the Dodgers to augment the erroneous assumption that Beltre only hits in contract years. Were that the case, of course, Beltre would have had much better seasons in his arbitration years in L.A., and he would have had a much more productive '09 -- his final year in Seattle. Obviously, no contract has been on the line in Texas, and Beltre has responded with two stellar seasons, paused only by the hamstring injury he suffered last summer. If anything, what Beltre has accomplished in Texas only hammers home the point that he is one of the best third basemen of his generation. From his first full season in 1999 to the present day, according to data on FanGraphs.com, no third baseman bests Beltre's 15.2 mark in the defensive calculus of Ultimate Zone Rate per 150 games (Scott Rolen is second, at 14.2). And in that same span, no third baseman has created more runs than Beltre's 1,140, according to STATS LLC (Chipper Jones is second, with 1,118). Just think how much more productive Beltre would have been had he not spent five prime years playing home games at Safeco, where the pitcher-friendly dimensions, heavy marine layer and light supporting cast undoubtedly affected his stats. So at the end of August, when Beltre joined Joe DiMaggio in becoming just the second player in history to have a three-homer game and hit for the cycle in the same week, Beltre's Hall of Fame candidacy became a hot, albeit extremely presumptuous, topic in the blogosphere. The basic line of thinking is that if Beltre continues his current offensive pace through the length of his Rangers contract, he'll surpass the 400-homer and 1,500-RBI plateaus, all while being regarded as one of the game's better defensive players. "Way premature," Beltre says of this topic. "I don't think about that and don't see myself as one of those guys. I'm just playing baseball, enjoying playing baseball and doing what I can to win games. When my career's over, we'll see what happens with that. But it's not something that drives me to play baseball." Beltre plays to win. And if he had his way, he'd play every day. But with age has come an understanding that sometimes it's best to back off a bit. And Washington hasn't had to get down on his knees and beg him to take a day at DH from time to time. "He's been better this year," Washington says. "He'll just tell me, 'Whatever you want to do, Skip.' So that's a different Beltre ... as long as I don't tell him he's totally out of the lineup."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.