The suddenly big-spending Seattle Mariners are close to signing their second free agent slugger of the week, having reached a contract agreement with Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Adrian Beltre.
Beltre, a 25-year-old who led the major leagues with 48 home runs in 2004, is expected in Seattle today for a physical exam before the deal becomes official. It would pay the right-handed slugger more than $64 million over five years.
The Mariners do not comment on unsigned players, although two team officials confirmed that a deal for Beltre is nearly complete.
“It appears that between the legal stuff and the physical stuff, we may be in position to announce it by late tomorrow afternoon,” a team executive said Thursday.
Beltre had arthroscopic surgery to remove two large bone spurs from his left ankle in early November. He is expected to be able to resume jogging and running in early January.
The contract would be the richest in franchise history, passing the four-year, $50 million deal that first baseman Richie Sexson signed on Wednesday.
Beltre turned down a $70 million, six-year offer from the Dodgers.
“We’re disappointed. It hurts,” Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta said. “We feel like we stepped up with a very competitive offer and tried to make it compelling with a sixth guaranteed year. Adrian decided to go elsewhere.”
Mariners manager Bill Bavasi, while refusing comment on Beltre, said one of the team’s objectives is to acquire a power-hitting third baseman this offseason.
“There is some importance to it,” Bavasi said.
Without Beltre, the Mariners’ options for a third baseman in 2005 were to move 21-year-old Jose Lopez to third from shortstop and acquire another player at short, or use rookie Greg Dobbs at third, where he has played just 10 games in the majors, all late this season.
The Mariners made power hitting their top offseason priority after they finished last in the American League with 136 home runs and 638 runs scored.
With Beltre, the Mariners will have solved several issues both offensively and defensively.
Offensively, he produced by far the best of his six seasons in 2004 with a .334 average, 48 homers and 121 runs batted in. He finished second to Barry Bonds in the National League MVP voting.
The biggest question about Beltre is whether he was a one-year wonder in 2004. The closest he had come to those numbers were 23 home runs in 2003 and 85 RBI in 2000.
“He has always had the tools. He just hadn’t put it together until last year,” a Mariners official said. “We’ve always liked him. We were looking to acquire him a couple of years ago.”
The Mariners are taking a step back in their quest to add at least one left-handed home run hitter to take advantage of Safeco Field’s power zone in right field, where the ball carries better than any other part of the ballpark. Both Beltre and Sexson are right-handed hitters.
If the season started today, Ichiro Suzuki, Raul Ibanez and rookie Jeremy Reed would be the only left-handed hitters, although Randy Winn is a switch hitter.
Defensively, Beltre is considered a steady third baseman who finished 2004 with an impressive .978 fielding percentage (10 errors in 452 chances).
Adding Beltre as opposed to left-handed slugger Carlos Delgado, who was a free agent target of the Mariners, also will allow the Mariners to field a better defensive alignment.
Delgado would have played first base and forced the M’s to use Sexson, considered a reliable first baseman, in left field, a position he hadn’t played since 2000 with the Cleveland Indians.
Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price likes the idea of a stronger defense and an improved offense, which would take some of the pressure off the pitchers.
“We’re getting two quality corner infielders who are outstanding defensive players,” Price said. “And the more runs we score, the more wiggle room we have on the pitching staff. That’s not to say we don’t want to pitch perfect, but when you score more runs you don’t have to be quite as good.”
Price got a first-hand look at Beltre’s power in a 2001 interleague game when he hit a game-winning home run against the Mariners.
“It was a slider in the 10th inning for a home run off Jose Paniagua to end the game,” Price said, remembering every detail. “I never forget those.”
Note: The Mariners designated infielder Luis Ugueto for assignment Thursday in order to clear room on the 40-man major league roster for Sexson. The Mariners have 10 days to trade, assign to the minor leagues or release Ugueto, who the team purchased from the Pittsburgh Pirates after he was acquired in the Rule 5 draft in 2001.