No longer centerpiece, Beltran a key for Cards
Versatile veteran outfielder reports to camp healthy, stronger
JUPITER, Fla. -- Unlike some years in New York, when the weight of a seven-year, $119 million contract could be an albatross, Carlos Beltran reported to Spring Training on Thursday as just another position player.
There was no special fanfare, no predetermined press conference for him to make his introduction, no paparazzi present to capture his first batting practice session. Rather, Beltran just showed up and went to work.
Brought in to be a complementary piece in this offense -- not as a replacement for Albert Pujols' lost production -- Beltran will not be expected to shoulder the expectations of being a face of the franchise anymore. Not like he did in Kansas City. Not like he did with the Mets, who handed him the largest contract in franchise history, at the time, before the 2005 season.
"As a player, it's impossible for you to put a team on your back," said Beltran, who signed a two-year, $26 million deal with the Cardinals in December. "It depends on 25 guys to go out there and perform and do the job."
There's no denying, though, that Beltran will be a key member of that 25. Manager Mike Matheny will insert him into the lineup anywhere between second and fifth, and Beltran, assuming no red flags appear with his knees, would be an option should the Cardinals need to shift someone to center field.
Now with his fifth club, Beltran has the luxury of entering camp healthy. He approached Spring Training gingerly last year due to limitations with his surgically repaired right knee. Left knee tendinitis then further reduced what he was able to do last March.
Beltran ended up playing in only two Grapefruit League games and actually played in the outfield only once.
Those knees, though, were hardly cranky during the year, and aside from a minor right hand injury, Beltran stayed mostly healthy. He combined to play in 142 games with the Mets and Giants. The clean bill of health also allowed the veteran outfielder to return to a more rigorous offseason workout program as he prepared for 2012.
Beltran focused largely on building strength in his lower half and increased his weight-lifting capacity.
"We did a lot of things we didn't do the year before, and that is why I'm so happy this year," Beltran said. "This year I look forward to playing a lot of more [Grapefruit League] games and being able to get the timing and feel my legs and my body out there."
Matheny said he will seek Beltran's input when deciding how much the outfielder plays next month. The organization sees no reason to push Beltran to play more than he thinks is beneficial. When Beltran is involved in Grapefruit League play, the priority will be getting him repetitions in right field.
The Cardinals may eventually consider using Beltran in center field when Allen Craig returns, but because Beltran is so familiar with the position -- he played there almost exclusively before being moved to guard against too much wear and tear on his knees in 2011 -- there is no concern about him being ready to shift over there during the season, as needed.
"Last year, I think it was good for me to be able to stay in right field and stay fresh, and I feel that I did real good," Beltran said. "I think I adjusted to it really good. I'm here to help the team anywhere I can. If they need me in center field, right field, I just have to do the best I can to put myself in position to help the team win as best I can."
Matheny is still not sharing his thoughts about where Beltran might best fit into the lineup, though it's probably wise to observe Beltran's mobility before slotting him into a particular spot. Beltran said he doesn't mind the fluidity. Instead, he's ready to fit in where needed, which is a welcome change from being the one everyone is built around.
"Everything feels good, thank God," Beltran said. "I feel happy. I feel strong. I'm just looking forward to getting out there and help this team."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. 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.