Of all the lowly numbers the punchless Dodgers put up last season—such as 574 runs and a .303 on-base percentage, both numbers the worst in the National League since 1992—the most bizarre is zero: games in which third baseman Adrian Beltre wore a protective cup, extending his major league career record.
"Don't like them," Beltre says. "I'm not comfortable with them. When you move, it moves around. I never wear one."
Beltre also claims never to have been hit where the cup would have come in handy, except for the times when he was a teenager in the Dominican summer league and a coach would tap the knob of a fungo bat between each player's legs to see if he was wearing one. Those found to be unprotected received, in addition to the unpleasant sensation, a small fine. Beltre paid his share.
"Crazy," says Dodgers infielder Robin Ventura. "Shortstop, maybe I could see. But third base? I guess he's not too worried about being a father."
Actually, Beltre became a father for the first time last winter. "That could be a good thing," manager Jim Tracy says. Much of the Dodgers' season rides on how Beltre has matured. Every year a mention of his age is usually preceded with only, as in "only 24" this season. But Beltre has also been around so long that he's eligible for free agency after this year, and he's played in 149 more games in his career than Mike Lowell, the Marlins' 30-year-old third baseman. Blessed with tremendous power, Beltre is only a career .262 hitter with a .320 on-base percentage and a penchant for ignoring the boundaries of the strike zone.
Privately, the Dodgers like to think that Beltre can be a late bloomer like Sammy Sosa, who also was a streaky, undisciplined hitter with raw power as a youngster. Says Beltre, who drew only 37 walks last year, "I have to get better, but I cannot change the way I play. I'm not a rookie anymore. No more excuses about being young. If I don't do it, I will take all the blame."
Beltre won't have much help around him. Tracy plans to hit him third, behind Dave Roberts and Cesar Izturis—who had awful 2003 OBPs of .331 and .282, respectively. "He's been a second-half player," Tracy says. "If we get some consistency from Beltre starting in April, we have a very interesting number 3 hitter." The Dodgers did almost nothing to treat their lineup anemia, mostly because the team's sale to Boston developer Frank McCourt wasn't finalized until Feb. 13, after much of the winter's trade and signing activity was completed. New general manager Paul DePodesta took over two days before spring training. Los Angeles did add outfielder Juan Encarnacion, who drove in 94 runs for Florida, but he is yet another player who was worse than the league average (.332) at getting on base (.313).
"I guarantee we're going to be better than last year," Roberts says. "Last year was a fluke. Everybody in the lineup had a bad year. What are the odds that's going to happen two years in a row? It won't happen."
"We don't have to be the '27 Yankees," DePodesta says. "With our pitching, if we can just move up to the eighth, ninth, even 10th spot [in the league] in runs we should be O.K."
So dominant were Dodgers pitchers last year that they had more strikeouts than hits allowed and posted an ERA (3.16) more than a run below the league average. They did lose ace Kevin Brown, by trade, and reliever Paul Quantrill, by free agency, to the Yankees; Jeff Weaver, a flop in New York, joins the rotation. The deep bullpen, led by closer Eric Gagne, is fortified by Darren Dreifort, who was throwing 95 mph again in spring training after undergoing the sixth and seventh major operations of his career (knee and hip this time).