ST. LOUIS The Cardinals knew they were getting an All-Star caliber player when they signed outfielder Carlos Beltran to a two-year contract over the offseason. They had no idea they were getting an All-Star person.
Two weeks into the young season Beltran has proven to be worth every penny of the Cardinals' 26 million investment for the next two years.
On the field he's hitting .351 with a team-leading four home runs. Off the field he's gone out of his way to give as much advice possible to the younger players.
"I think he's been more," said manager Mike Matheny when asked if Beltran has been what the Cardinals expected. "With how much effort he's putting into other guys, he's right in the middle of the game and he's in there cheerleading and talking with guys and helping them try to figure out an approach and talking about opposing pitchers' stuff.
"He wants to win and he wants to see other guys do well and for a guy as talented as he is, you don't always see that mix."
Beltran was signed to help make up for lost production when first baseman Albert Pujols departed for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in December. And two weeks into the season, he's out produced the slugger all by himself.
Beltran was on base seven times in a two-game span heading into Wednesday night's matchup with the Cincinnati Reds and was fourth in the National League with a .467 on-base percentage.
Pujols entered Wednesday night stuck in the middle of his longest homerless drought to start a season and was hitting just .267 with four RBI.
But despite making six All-Star Game's and winning three Gold Glove Awards, the accomplished 34-year-old Beltran arrived to his new club in Spring Training ready to share as much knowledge as possible.
Beltran spoke at length one day this spring with outfielder Mark Hamilton, breaking down his stroke and offering a simple tip: don't swing so hard. Instead of showing up acting like the multi-million dollar superstar athlete that he is, Beltran immediately tried to fit in and let folks know that he was a Cardinal.
"Some guys talk the talk but he showed up to spring training walking it," Matheny said. "He went down to the minor league outfield instructors and asked if he could come in and talk for a day, I mean he requested it and went down and gave some great information to him. I mean just overall that's kind of his makeup."
The American League Rookie of the Year with the Kansas City Royals in 1999, Beltran played parts of seven seasons in Kansas City before going to Houston in a deadline deal in 2004.
The switch-hitter hit .435 with eight home runs, 14 RBI and 21 runs scored in the playoffs that fall including a .417 clip and four home runs against the Cardinals in the NLCS before signing a seven-year, 119 million deal with the New York Mets.
Beltran was dealt to the San Francisco Giants last summer, the final year of his deal, before becoming a free agent in the offseason. Finally healthy after injury plagued years in 2009 and 2010, Beltran hit .300 with 22 home runs and 84 RBI between the Mets and Giants last season.
The switch-hitter had an impressive Spring Training and has carried that over right into the regular season.
"I feel good," Beltran said. "I think right now I'm going out there and I feel like I have a good approach at the plate right now. Sometimes as hitters you go through situations where you don't have good at-bats but right now every time I step up to the plate I feel like I have a chance to get on base."
An encouraging sign for the Cardinals could be Beltran's fast start. A notorious slow starter, Beltran has charged out of the gate with a strong first two weeks a sign that maybe he's in store for a solid season should he remain healthy.
Beltran didn't hit his fourth home run last year until May 3. He didn't have his batting average over .300 until Sept. 18.
"Normally I'm a slow starter and I really start feeling better in the second half," Beltran said. "But every time you start on a good note, I think it makes it fun and I'm just happy that we're winning ballgames right now."
Of his first two months with the Cardinals, Beltran said, "It's been fun. Honestly it's been a great time so far and we're just looking forward to keep playing the same way we're playing right now. Everybody is doing their job, the bench guys, starters, starting pitchers, bullpen guys, so it's been fun to watch."
Beltran reached the NLCS twice - in 2004 with Houston and 2006 with New York - but his teams were eliminated by the Cardinals both times. He's yet to play in a World Series in 14 big league seasons and has made that the biggest remaining goal he hopes to accomplish in his career.
And he's doing everything he can to try and help that happen, both on the field and in the clubhouse.
"If there's ever anything I want to know, I'll ask him what he thinks or what he does in certain situations," said rookie outfielder Erik Komatsu. "He's just a great ballplayer so getting knowledge from him, me being a younger guy and him being a premier player especially, you can't get knowledge any better from anybody.
"The most I learn from him, really just watching what he does, watching his daily routine and seeing what kind of things he does and just trying to take it all in. He's doing what he's doing for a reason and that's why he's good."
Beltran has provided an immediate impact for the Cardinals. And the Cardinals are benefiting from it greater than they ever imagined.