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Beltran stirring comparison to Bonds

His hitting coach tutored Barry Bonds at Arizona State. His agent has helped keep the clutter away from the ballpark which could mess with Bonds' strong mind.

And his skills? They draw comparisons to a young Bonds.

Unfortunately for Carlos Beltran, that's not where the parallels end. Like the greatest hitter this side of a Bernard Malamud novel, Beltran is also putting up monstrous numbers for a team going downhill in a hurry.

Through the first four weeks of the season, Bonds was on pace to hit .463 with 62 home runs, 137 runs batted in and 274 walks (137 intentional) for the San Francisco Giants, who were on track to go 75-87.

Beltran, meanwhile, was on pace to hit .322 with 56 homers, 134 RBI, 49 stolen bases and 127 walks for the Kansas City Royals, who somehow were on track to go 49-113.

There's a silliness to the projections, of course. As talented as they are, neither Bonds nor Beltran can keep this up for 162 games. The Royals aren't going to lose that many games, and the Giants probably won't, either.

But here's one projection that you can bank on: Finally, the time is fast approaching when Royals general manager Allard Baird will be forced to do something he's dreaded for years -- trading the best player Kansas City has had since George Brett.

Given Beltran's marketability and agent Scott Boras' aversion to hometown discounts, there's never been much doubt this would be the 27-year-old center fielder's last year with the Royals. But Baird and manager Tony Pena hoped Beltran could fuel a playoff run before departing.

The way Kansas City pitchers are throwing batting practice to their opponents, a playoff run is not going to happen. The schedule says there's still time to turn it around but barring something truly magical, the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox are going to continue pulling away in the AL Central.

By Memorial Day, when the Royals had hoped their brisk summer attendance would begin, the only question may be how long until Baird surrenders to reality and trades Beltran to the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers or even -- gulp -- the Tigers.

Beltran is certainly seizing the day. Like Alex Rodriguez with the 2000 Seattle Mariners, Beltran approaches free agency with an absolutely electrifying game.

This is how Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski, a career Beltran watcher, wrote a poignant piece about how Beltran was the most exciting player on the field during a series last weekend at Yankee Stadium.

"He is that in every park he plays,'' Posnanski wrote. "These days he just seems to burst out of the scene, as if he's playing in 3-D. He does everything. He makes diving catches. He hits long home runs from both sides of the plate. He steals bases at will ... Beyond the numbers, he's just plain thrilling to watch. At any moment, he might steal a home run or steal third or throw out a runner or hit a triple or blast a home run. It's like anything you want, anything you love about baseball, this guy can do.''

Like Bonds, Beltran has learned not to waste any effort at the plate. He's become so selective -- with 19 walks and 13 strikeouts in his first 24 games -- it's hard to believe he's the same guy who struck out 135 times in 2002.

This is no accident, of course. Boras provided Beltran with videotapes of Bonds to study in the offseason. The lesson seems to have gone well.

"I had Barry when he was young, and Carlos reminds me of Barry at that time," said Royals hitting coach Jeff Pentland, a former Arizona State coach who has also helped Sammy Sosa. "Obviously, Barry has gone on to bigger and greater things ... I'm not comparing him to Barry Bonds, but he has that kind of talent. Now what he does with it is up to him."

Beltran has already done plenty. He hit .293 and drove in 108 runs in 1999, his first full season in the majors, when he was only 22. He has had at least 100 RBI in three of the last four years, working in the middle of a Kansas City lineup that has been consistently underrated.

But this season has been special. He is tied for the American League lead in homers (eight), tied for fifth in RBI (20), second in runs scored (25), sixth in on-base percentage (.438), second in slugging (.700) and first in OPS (1.138).

"I feel good at the plate, from the left side especially," he said. "I'm seeing the ball good. I feel like I'm staying back. I'm letting the ball get deep. From the right side, I'm trying to do the same thing."

Yankees fans put the full-court press on Beltran when the Royals were in New York last weekend.

"I heard some fans say, 'Hey, you know, you can come play here next year,' '' Beltran told Posnanski. "I told them I want to play in a place where I'll be comfortable. They said, 'We'll give you a lot of money. You'll be very comfortable.' "

Beltran is comfortable in Kansas City, but his $9 million salary accounts for 19 percent of the Royals' $47.6 million payroll. His share could jump to 30 percent if Baird paid Beltran the price he is certain to generate on the free agent market, where a contract of five-plus years for at least $15 million per season seems practically assured.

That wouldn't leave enough money to build a competitive team around him, especially in Kansas City. So while Beltran showcases himself for his next employer, the Royals groom 24-year-old David DeJesus to take Beltran's spot in center field.

It's a dreary scenario for the fans in Kansas City who have watched Beltran since he was the kid who replaced Johnny Damon, a homegrown center fielder whose combination of service time and skills priced himself out of the Royals' market. At least they'll be able to say they supported Beltran when he was on his way to bigger and better things.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.