Thursday, July 28, 2011

Carlos Beltran's talent still impressive

San Franscisco Giants outfielder Carlos Beltran moves with a fluidity and grace that suggest he could fall out of a hammock and hit for the cycle. Scouts nod their heads knowingly when assessing his tools, and players who have crossed paths with him through the years recall the encounters as though they were mystical

Jeremy Affeldt was a minor leaguer in the Kansas City chain in 2000 when Beltran, then a budding star with the Royals, passed through Class-A Wilmington on an injury rehab assignment. After Beltran launched two homers and a triple in 13 at-bats, Affeldt took a hard look inward.
"You can't hit a ball out of Wilmington, and that guy was hitting it out of there like it was nothing," Affeldt said. "I was like, 'If this is what guys are like in the big leagues, I've got no shot. I quit. I'm going home.'"
Brad Lidge was closing for Houston in 2004 when the Astros acquired Beltran in a mid-season trade with Kansas City. Nestled in the third spot in the batting order in front of Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent and Jeff Bagwell, Beltran hit 23 homers in 90 games. Then he tacked on eight more homers during a one-man demoralization tour in the postseason.
"At the time, he was maybe the most athletic player I've ever seen," Lidge said. "If you were talking about a guy with everything you wanted to have in a baseball player, he was the guy."
Beltran's face is a little rounder and fuller than it was in his Houston days, his knees are a lot crankier and he's more than $100 million richer. As he joins his fourth career organization, he remains what baseball people like to call a "difference maker."
The big question now is, how much difference can he make over the next 60 days?
The Giants got their first glimpse of their new right fielder and third-place hitter Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park. A day after coming over from the Mets in a trade for pitching prospect Zack Wheeler, Beltran went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts against Kyle Kendrick and Michael Stutes. But the Giants won 4-1 behind Tim Lincecum to take two of three games from one of their prime National League competitors.
Beltran insists that he feels no pressure to be the focus of attention in San Francisco. When the roster features Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson, Brian Wilson's beard and a guy known as the Kung Fu Panda, he's probably right.
"I'm just coming here to be a part of what they already have," Beltran said. "I don't feel like I need to do anything differently."
Before taking the field for batting practice, Beltran appeared at a news conference that was about as placid and non-bulletin-board-worthy as you'll find from a star player leaving the biggest market in sports for a gig as a two-month rental. He's given little thought to his upcoming free agency, and he expressed a sense of wistfulness over his time in New York. Beltran made five All-Star teams as a Met, but never got the team to a World Series.
"It was hard leaving in a sense, because I've been with that organization seven years and I have friends there," Beltran said. "But the decision wasn't that difficult because I knew I was coming to a team that's in first place. For the Mets to win that division is uphill because of the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves. I always made it clear to the organization that I was willing to go to a team in contention."
Beltran's acquisition changes the dynamic among the National League's elite, at least perceptually. The Giants have had a yawning chasm in the middle of their batting order since catcher Buster Posey went down with a broken ankle in late May. Stick Beltran in the No. 3 hole behind Andres Torres and Jeff Keppinger and in front of Pablo Sandoval, Aubrey Huff and an emerging Nate Schierholtz, and it's a more challenging group for opposing pitchers to navigate.
Beltran arrived to find several familiar faces in the San Francisco clubhouse. He played with Affeldt in Kansas City and alongside Guillermo Mota with the Mets. Nine years ago, Beltran was playing in Kansas City when he gave some batting tips to a young Detroit Tigers outfielder and fellow Puerto Rico native named Andres Torres. Beltran's thoughtfulness still resonates with Torres today as a Giant.
"I respect him and I want to thank him for that," Torres said. "Not everybody is going to come to you and help you like that. I'll never forget that."
Manager Bruce Bochy is doing his best to make Beltran feel welcome with the Giants. Before this week, both men wore jersey No. 15. When the trade with New York was near completion, Bochy was asked what it might take to surrender the number, and he joked that it was nothing a nice Rolex couldn't cure.
To which Beltran replied, "Do you want it with or without diamonds?"
Neither, it turns out. Bochy handed over No. 15 as a welcoming gesture, no strings attached. The Giants manager is now wearing No. 16.
"I didn't hesitate," Bochy said. "I'm not real sentimental about the number. I'm not playing anymore, and I have a jacket on for the most part anyway. I was glad to give it up. I think 15 has been on the bench long enough. It's good to see 15 out there running around."
It wasn't quite so good when Beltran raced in to catch a Jimmy Rollins pop fly in the fifth inning Thursday, and the brace on his right knee got caught in the turf at Citizens Bank Park and left a gargantuan divot in right field. Beltran quickly got to his feet and replaced the sod with the diligence of your average 26-handicapper, but not before giving his manager a few heart palpitations.
"I'm not gonna lie. I'm thinking, 'First game -- don't start doing that,'" Bochy said.
Beltran walked out of the trainer's room after the game with two man-sized ice packs on his knees, but still in one piece and ready to gear up for the stretch drive. The Giants might not be able to repeat as world champions this year. But with Beltran in the fold, it'll be fun watching them try.

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