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For third, Beltre is an excellent pickup

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / January 6, 2010

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In spring training of 2007, I sat down with Mike Lowell to discuss the art of playing third base. I asked Lowell, a Gold Glove third baseman, who, in his opinion, was the best.

“Tools-wise, Adrian Beltre is the best one,’’ he said. “He can be the best one. He’s very, very quick. He comes in on the ball incredibly. I relate it to the way I can catch some ground balls. But I see some balls he gets down the line where I really have to concentrate on setting my feet to make a good, strong throw and he’s off-balance throwing from the side and it’s a rocket that comes out of his arm.

“So I enjoy watching his tools. I wish I could have that ability to flick the ball across the diamond and it goes like a bullet. In the minors, he was like a man playing against boys.’’

Beltre now becomes Lowell’s replacement at third base for the Red Sox.

The superlatives on his defense come fast and furious from anyone you ask.

“Probably the best defensive player I ever played with,’’ said Beltre’s former Dodger teammate, Dave Roberts. “Not just third base, best defensive player, period.’’

We will find out during the course of the 2010 season whether the adage that “pitching and defense wins’’ is true. The Sox are stacked with both. Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daisuke Matsuzaka for starters. Tim Wakefield as a swingman. Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, Daniel Bard, Ramon Ramirez, and Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen, with one other reliever likely to be added. Gold Glovers in Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and Beltre, plus a pretty good fielder in Marco Scutaro. An outfield of Jacoby Ellsbury (yes, the Sox will take the fastest major league outfielder and play him in the smallest left field in baseball), Mike Cameron, and J.D. Drew can cover ground. Victor Martinez may not be a great defensive catcher/first baseman, but he’s not that bad.

The lineup?

Well, it will be as good as Cameron and Beltre make it.

“I love those two guys,’’ said Roberts, now a special assistant to Padres general manager Jed Hoyer. “They’re not going to hit for average, but they’re going to come through with a big hit, a big home run. They love to play. Defensively, you’re not going to see too many mistakes made on the field. Pitchers are going to love the defense.’’

But pitchers love offense as well. The Sox’ answer to losing Jason Bay was Beltre. Bay was 30 homers and 100 RBIs like clockwork. Beltre is harder to define. His guarantee is his defense. Beyond that, nothing is certain.

You have to project him as a decent offensive player at Fenway. His 2009 season, in which he batted .266, hit 8 homers, and knocked in 44 runs in 111 games, is not unlike the bad year Lowell had in Florida in 2005 (.236, 8 homers, 58 RBIs). Lowell was dealt to Boston, and in 2006, he was more like the player he was in his better years with Florida.

Beltre has had two extremes: last year and 2004, when he hit 48 homers for the Dodgers. But he was beset by injuries last year (including a gruesome contusion of his right testicle after he took a ground ball off the groin in August).

Lowell actually played in eight more games than Beltre last season despite a bum hip and an injured thumb; through it all, he hit .290 with 17 homers and 75 RBIs. Beltre suffered the testicle injury not long after returning from shoulder surgery to remove bone spurs.

“When he was hitting the home runs in LA in ’04, he was hitting the ball to right-center,’’ said Roberts. “He can get pull-happy.’’

Not so bad at Fenway, is it?

“His natural stroke is to right-center,’’ said former Seattle manager John McLaren. “Actually, the wind currents go to right-center at Safeco, but Adrian would just kind of get out of his swing at times.’’

But McLaren loved Beltre.

“He might be the toughest player that I’ve been around in 22 years I’ve been in major league baseball,’’ said McLaren, now the bench coach with the Nationals. “If he’s not in the lineup, it’s because he’s in the hospital. He’ll fight you all the way if you try to give him a day off.

“I’m telling you, he probably played with things the past couple of years he shouldn’t have played with. He had a shoulder and a thumb injury when we had him in ’08 and he should have taken more time off. But he’s a magician with the glove. The fans up there will love him.’’

In September 2008, Beltre had a thumb operation (for a torn ligament) similar to the one Lowell underwent. Beltre’s was actually considered worse, so his physical with Sox doctors this week may take some time.

The Sox certainly aren’t through with this roster. They dealt a spare part in Casey Kotchman to Seattle for Bill Hall. Now comes the tough part: dealing Lowell.

Will they have to wait until Lowell is seen by scouts in spring training? That’s the interesting question. Maybe not, if they take another bad contract or a player a team is desperately trying to deal. There have been reports about Lowell going to the Mets for second baseman Luis Castillo, but Castillo is in no way someone the Sox need. Then again, he could be a player the Sox might be able to flip, though the Mets have had trouble moving him so they can add Orlando Hudson. A Castillo deal would make financial sense since he makes $6 million this year and next, and if the Mets took Lowell, the Sox would gain $6 million on this year’s payroll.

There were discussions on Lowell at the winter meetings. The Texas deal for Max Ramirez fell through, as did the briefly discussed deal with the Cubs for Milton Bradley.

After the Beltre signing, it’s hard to imagine a team that is better at pitching and defense than the Sox. But is that enough? The adage will be tested.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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