|Beltre salutes Rangers fans after doubling for his 3,000th hit (New York Times)|
Let's start at the beginning. Did you know the Dodgers broke MLB rules to sign Beltre out of the Dominican Republic when he was 15? It's true. Less than four years later he was up in the big leagues, struggling to bat his weight during the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
It didn't take long for Beltre to adjust, however, and the following year saw him bat .275/.352/.428 (102 OPS+) with 15 homers while ranking as one of the league's best defensive third basemen. His 18 steals and 61 walks from that season remain career highs. In 2000 he was even batter, hitting .290/.360/.475 (114 OPS+) with 20 homers and 12 steals. Still several years away from his physical prime, he appeared to be a superstar in the making.
Then he was derailed by an appendectomy, of all things, which kept him out of the lineup until mid-May and caused his OPS to tumble more than 100 points in 2001. His defense cratered as well, as he was below average in the field for the first and only time in his career. While his power and glovework bounced back in 2002-'03, his patience never did, and his average continue to fall along with his BABIP, which bottomed out at .253 in 2003. With his early flashes of stardom receding in the rearview, he seemed to be settling into a solid but unspectacular third baseman.
Then came 2004, the year Beltre finally put everything together. He more than doubled his home run output from the previous season to lead the Majors with 48. His average soared to .334 as he trimmed his strikeout rate from 16.9 percent to 13.2 percent, and his walk rate rebounded as well. He was worth 9.5 bWAR and, in an alternate universe where Barry Bonds doesn't become a freak of nature, he wins the MVP over Albert Pujols in a photo finish. Instead he finishes second, unable to overcome Bonds' record-setting .609 OBP, which is just 20 points lower than Beltre's slugging percentage in '04.
A free agent heading into his age-26 season, Beltre has timed his monster season perfectly. He is going to get paid, and it is the Mariners who land him. He signs for five years and $64 million, giving him another crack at free agency when he's 30.
The next half-decade nearly ruins Beltre, who doesn't come close to replicating his 2004 season. He wins a pair of Gold Gloves but his bat regresses, stymied by Safeco Field and the cool, damp air currents of the Pacific Northwest. The strikeouts rise and the walks fall, reflecting a player pressing to prove he is worth the money and put a stop to the "overrated" jeers he hears on a nightly basis. Seattle slips into mediocrity, which only exacerbates the criticism. Beltre has duped the Mariners and their fans. He is not the player they thought they were getting, the slick-fielding home run champion who, for a season, rivaled Bonds and Alex Rodriguez as the best player in the game. He becomes a poster-boy for the walk-year phenomenon.
In 2009, Beltre's final season in Seattle, he becomes a punchline. After scuffling in the spring, his summer hot streak is interrupted when a grounder takes a bad hop and nails him in the groin. Beltre isn't wearing a cup and lands on the DL. He finishes the year with eight home runs and 44 RBIs, his lowest totals since his rookie year. Having reaped the rewards of free agency after his best season, he struggles to find a contract in the wake of his worst.
The Red Sox, knowing a good deal when they see one, scoop him up on a one-year deal. Free of Seattle's toxic environment and finally aided by his home park for the first time in his career, Beltre returns to form. He racks up 7.8 bWAR and makes his first All-Star team, batting .321 with 28 homers, 102 RBIs and an MLB-high 49 doubles (he's no Fenway fluke, either, hitting for a higher average and notching 30 of his doubles away from home). He is not flashy enough for the Sox, however, and they let him walk in free agency.
Since then Beltre's been with Texas, where he's turned his Hall of Fame chances from unlikely to a first-ballot lock. He's become a steady .300 hitter while posting four of the five highest home run totals of his career, taking advantage of Arlington's homer-friendly environment. He's also continued to showcase his excellent defense at third, adding three Gold Gloves to his trophy case. After years of underrating him, the press finally caught on to his greatness and have rewarded him with five top-10 MVP finishes this decade, during which he's been baseball's third-most valuable position player behind Mike Trout and Joey Votto.
Now 38, Beltre has shown no signs of slowing down. He's still batting close to .300 with power and playing a mean third base. He looks like the next version of David Ortiz, a player who will leave on his own terms rather than being forced into retirement by diminishing skills. With several milestones such as 500 home runs and 700 doubles potentially in reach, he may want to stick around a few more years after his contract expires next season. He still hasn't won a World Series, either, which has to be a motivating factor after coming oh-so close in 2011.
Whenever he decides to retire, though, we'll look back on his career as one of the most unusual ones we've ever seen.