Beltran providing more than Cards expected

Beltran providing more than Cards expected

Beltran providing more than Cards expected
PHOENIX -- The week after Albert Pujols turned down the Cardinals' contract offer, general manager John Mozeliak phoned the first baseman's agent, Dan Lozano.

There were new negotiations to begin.

Knowing that they had to prepare for a future without Pujols, the Cardinals had, before Pujols actually walked away, identified who they would target to fill the offensive void. It would need to be a first baseman or a right fielder, as Lance Berkman's ability to play both spots allowed for St. Louis to enjoy some flexibility.

As evaluations began, one name rose above the rest. It was that of Carlos Beltran, whose seven-year deal with the Mets ended with a trade to the Giants and ultimately free agency after the 2011 season. It just so happened that he, too, was represented by Lozano.

"When you were looking at roster development, you talk about the need of having someone bring additional production to the lineup," Mozeliak said. "We were trying to identify someone who could provide that boost. We have a long history of seeing Beltran and have always looked at him as an elite player."

When St. Louis signed Beltran late last December, the Cardinals were quick to point out that he wasn't brought in specifically to replace Pujols. Such expectations would be unreasonable, and Beltran dismissed them as well.

It's early in Beltran's two-year deal, and Pujols has another nine-plus years to pick up his production in Anaheim, but five weeks into the 2012 season, the Cardinals have received better-than-projected production from a player who, only a few years ago, had some wondering if his best days were well behind him.

"His performance has been almost dominant in terms of helping our club," Mozeliak said. "In terms of where our club is today is that he has been a key part of that."

Beltran has been one of the league's best run producers, a feat made even more impressive given that he has batted second in 11 of his 28 starts. He's driven in 13 runs from that spot, along with another 14 from the four-hole.

Those 27 RBIs rank second among all National League players. Beltran is also among the league leaders in home runs (10, second in NL), runs scored (24, third) on-base percentage (.391, 10th), slugging percentage (.569, seventh) and OPS (.959, 8th). He has had two multihomer games and has already driven in 15 runs in May.

If he were to maintain such production, Beltran would shatter his previous career highs of 41 homers and 116 RBIs, which were set in 2006. And he would do so at age 35.

"I'm glad that we got that guy," catcher Yadier Molina said. "We all knew that he could hit, but when we're on the same team seeing the show that he's putting up there, it's unbelievable. Good for him. Good for us."

While it's impossible to know what type of numbers Pujols would have put up had he stayed put, his results in Anaheim have, thus far, not mirrored Belran's. It took Pujols until May 6 to hit a home run. He has just 11 RBIs.

As for Beltran, he considers himself rejuvenated not so much because of a change of scenery, but through renewed health. He downplays the perception that New York might have been a less-than-desirable place to spend the last seven, or that fulfilling expectations and a $119 million contract ever affected his love for the game.

"Health is everything," Beltran said. "Without health, there is no way I can go out there and perform and play good defense. When I wake up in the morning, I feel no pain in my body. I feel good coming to the ballpark. In the past years, you wake up in the morning and feel like your knee hurts. It's a grind from the time you wake up in the morning."

Beltran lived that grind for much of the past three seasons. It began in June 2009, when Beltran suffered a bone bruise that sidelined him out for two and a half months.

He played a career-low 64 games the next season, the result of an offseason knee surgery that Beltran underwent against the Mets' wishes. And though Beltran stayed off the disabled list, appeared in 142 games and earned a spot on the All-Star team in 2011, there was still a hint of hesitation as he played last year.

That is the case no more and hasn't been since the day Beltran arrived at the Cardinals' spring complex in Jupiter, Fla., in February.

"I played being cautious, and I managed myself," Beltran said. "When you play like that, it's not an easy thing for a player. You come to the ballpark and have to go through certain routines and through the training room. Right now, I'm not even icing my knees. I'm not spending half of the day in the training room.

"I'm going to the cage and having a good time. I'm not protecting anything. I'm not compensating. I'm just playing the game."

His transition into the organization has appeared seamless, too. He has the unique ability to converse fluently with both the English- and Spanish-speaking players, and many have taken to his never-get-too-high-or-too-low personality.

He has shown a similar ease on the field, where his swing is regularly described as effortless and the fluidity with which he plays defense could be mistaken for lackadaisical. It is anything but.

"His swing and his approach are so simple," manager Mike Matheny said. "He's got a good idea of what he's looking for and doesn't try to do too much when he gets it. I think that's just smart hitting from a guy who has been around a while."

He's been around long enough to appreciate success, too. Lured to St. Louis by the desire to win a World Series championship, Beltran has seemingly found the perfect fit. And to this point, the Cardinals wouldn't disagree.

"I'm just happy," Beltran said. "I'm blessed. I'm having a great time, and we have a great team."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.