The ideal third baseman must, among other things, be agile enough to field balls pulled directly at him from 90 feet away, yet strong enough to hit with the power expected of players who man the diamond's corner positions. There have been very few ideal third basemen in history. The Hall of Fame includes 24 players who played predominantly at shortstop, 20 second basemen and 21 first basemen, but only 16 who played the hot corner. Chipper Jones will almost certainly become the 17th, after the recently retired Brave becomes eligible in 2017. It seems more evident by the day that the 18th should be the Rangers' Adrian Beltre.
Beltre, 34, made his debut with the Dodgers in 1998 at age 19, and he first became a free agent when he was just 25. He happened to be coming off a season in which he hit .334 with 48 homers and 121 RBIs, and the Mariners gave him a contract worth $64 million over five years. Soon he became a poster child for the perils of free agency. Though he remained an excellent fielder—he won consecutive Gold Gloves in 2007 and '08—his power and his confidence waned in cavernous Safeco Field during what was supposed to be his prime. During five years in Seattle he batted .266, with pedestrian seasonal averages of 21 home runs and 79 RBIs.
Beltre's career, however, was revitalized after he signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox for 2010. He hit .321 with 28 homers and 102 RBIs, and he led the league with 49 doubles, numbers that, in part, led Texas GM Jon Daniels to hotly pursue Beltre during his third free agency go-round. The Rangers were a team on the rise—they had just made the playoffs for the first time since 1999, reaching the World Series—and Daniels believed success would best be sustained by re-signing ace Cliff Lee and adding Beltre. But if Lee proved too costly, Daniels was going to make sure to get Beltre. "He was far and away the Number 1 position player on our board," Daniels told SI during spring training of 2011. Daniels signed Beltre for five years and $80 million.
With Beltre, the Rangers have made the playoffs twice and are in contention to do so again. Along the way, the club has made headlines with its decision not to re-sign former AL MVP Josh Hamilton, its promotion of top prospect Jurickson Profar and its annual activity before the trade deadline (last week getting starter Matt Garza from the Cubs). Yet Texas's most important move might have been its acquisition of Beltre, who now has the distinction of being both one of the worst free-agent signings ever and one of the best.
During his time in Arlington, Beltre has been one of 14 players in baseball with an OPS of .898 or above. He ranks 13th in batting average (.309), third in homers (90), seventh in RBIs (265) and ninth among position players in Baseball Reference's wins above replacement (16.1). He has also continued to be an elite fielder—his ultimate zone rating since 2011, according to FanGraphs, is best among third basemen by a significant margin. He's a clubhouse leader, this despite bristling whenever a teammate attempts to touch his head, which Beltre apparently really, really does not like (see YouTube).
Beltre's Texas tenure has been more than a boon to the Rangers and to GIF connoisseurs. It has established him as Hall of Fame worthy. Even counting those disappointing years in Seattle, his career WAR is now 68.5, 20th among all players, active or retired, who are not in the Hall. The only younger player with a higher WAR is Albert Pujols. Beltre's case is strengthened by the fact that he plays such a demanding position. If he averages a WAR of 5.3—a figure he twice passed while struggling with the Mariners—over the next four years, according to that all-encompassing statistic, he will be the third-best third baseman ever, behind only Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews.
Beltre has two more years on his Texas contract, plus a player option for 2016 that will be voided should he fail to reach a specified number of plate appearances in '14-15. It is likely that Beltre will be firmly Hall-bound by then, and that he will go in wearing the only thing that he willingly allows to touch his scalp: a Rangers cap.