The last few years, you could count on a huddle of minor leaguers gawking at Elvis Andrus as he took grounders on the back fields in spring training. Andrus scoops nearly every ball with a fluid, smooth motion and makes the difficult plays look easy.
But this spring, it was Andrus who looked like one of those minor leaguers eager to see a defensive star in the desert. Adrian Beltre got Andrus' attention for much of March. Once the veteran third baseman returned from a calf strain, he put on a clinic -- on the field and in the batting cage.
"You see what he's done in this league and how he works," said Andrus, sneaking peeks to his right at his new infield mate. "You have to look at him. It's exciting to play with him."
Beltre took extra grounders most days late in spring. He'd glove a ball and roll it into a large pile near the third-base bag. When Beltre missed one -- a rarity -- mock jeers from teammates were sent his way. He just smiled and kept making plays. Andrus and the other infielders took notice.
That's just part of the impact the Texas Rangers need from Beltre if they are to repeat as AL West champions and put on a playoff run reminiscent of the 2010 edition.
The Rangers thought they'd probably head into 2011 with Michael Young at third base and a high-level pitcher -- maybe Cliff Lee, Matt Garza or Zack Greinke -- helping front the rotation with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis.
But despite the Rangers' willingness to pay top dollar for Lee, though not for a seventh year (still the right decision), the club's four-month ace joined the best rotation in the majors in Philadelphia. Tampa Bay and Kansas City wanted the Rangers to pay a prospect price they weren't comfortable parting with for Garza or Greinke.
So the club went a different direction, buzzing Scott Boras' phone and agreeing to a long-term deal -- five years, $80 million with a vested option for a sixth year at $16 million -- with Beltre.
The move was made with the pitching staff in mind. The idea: If you can't get a front-line starter, upgrade your defense behind the pitchers already on your team.
But the decision had consequences. The signing forced Young, the team leader, into a designated hitter/super-utility role. The veteran still sees himself as an everyday fielder. Later in the offseason, Young said he was "misled and manipulated" and asked to be traded. He came to camp ready to work and is prepared for the season, but he won't be a starting infielder.
Beltre also commands a large percentage of the payroll now and will going forward. The Rangers must be sure that they can still get some of their core players re-signed in the years that follow. C.J. Wilson is first up after this season, but Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and others aren't far behind.
The Rangers are confident they'll get their money's worth out of Beltre. They discount the notion -- one that is overblown, if you ask me -- that the third baseman's numbers will drop because he has a new contract. And Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan points to what Beltre will do on both sides of the ball.
"He stepped right in [in spring training] and is playing extremely well," Ryan said this week.
"We think his bat in our lineup is going to have a big presence and gives us flexibility of where we use Michael in the lineup. We've got the best third baseman in baseball playing for us on a daily basis. It gives us the ability to take Michael and spell out other people, and I think we'll see him in the infield more than people think."
For all the talk about Beltre's defense, the club is counting on him to impact the offense in a big way. He takes over the cleanup spot, occupied last year by Vladimir Guerrero. That means he's in the slot that offers protection for Josh Hamilton. He'll also hit ahead of Michael Young and Nelson Cruz, giving him a chance to score runs besides driving them in.
Beltre is a critical cog in the middle of a strong lineup. And with a pitching staff full of questions -- Can C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis duplicate last year? Will Derek Holland and Matt Harrison break through? Can the bullpen figure out the eighth inning now that Alexi Ogando is in the rotation? -- the bats become the key to this team, not unlike some previous editions of the Rangers.
"Just watch the guy for 10 minutes at third and in the cage and you see what he's got," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Watch his feet. They are always moving and he knows where he has to be at third and when he finds his pitch, he hits it. He's going to help us."
The Rangers are betting on it.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.