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Thursday, February 25, 2010
Weighty issue for Belliard

By Tony Jackson
ESPNLosAngeles.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Ronnie Belliard reported to spring training on Thursday with a major league contract in hand. But as anyone over 30 can attest -- and the veteran infielder definitely falls into that category -- his chance of actually making the club hinges on his ability to overcome an obstacle that might be as formidable as that faced by any of the 24 non-roster hopefuls the Dodgers have in camp.

Belliard has to drop a couple of pounds. At least.

The one-year, $825,000 contract Belliard signed -- and the Dodgers didn't even pony up that much until a little more than a month ago -- contains a clause requiring Belliard to weigh in at least once during spring training at no more than 209 pounds, the weight at which he finished last season. It's an interesting demand to place on a guy who hit .351 after the Dodgers acquired him from the Washington Nationals at last year's trading deadline, a guy who performed so well offensively that by the playoffs he had displaced a soon-to-be four-time Gold Glove winner as the everyday second baseman.

"I'm almost there," Belliard said. "I'm at about 210, 211. I have never come into spring training at [209]. I think I feel good and I look good, so we'll see what happens."

Like every other player who has reported to camp, Belliard underwent a routine physical examination that included a weigh-in. Dodgers trainer Stan Conte said he wasn't at liberty to reveal what Belliard weighed in at, which probably was a clear indication that he hasn't hit the target yet. But the Dodgers apparently didn't include the contract clause as a symbolic attempt to motivate Belliard to shed his love handles and look better at the beach. All indications are that the front office is deadly serious about this requirement.

Although the loosely structured depth chart has Belliard and newly signed veteran Jamey Carroll opening the season as the Dodgers' utility infielders, the club has alternatives. Two other major league veterans, Angel Berroa and Nick Green, also are in camp as non-roster invitees.

Belliard will turn 35 two days after the season opener, whether he makes the club or not. The pounds probably don't come off as easily as they once might have. For his part, he says he is doing everything he can to ensure that they do.

"I'm doing some running, and I'll hop up on the [stationary] bike," he said. "I still can eat everything, so that doesn't matter. I just think whatever I eat, I have to eat it early in the day."

Belliard's weight isn't outlandish for a ballplayer in general, but he is heavy for an infielder whom the Dodgers presumably will need at first, second and third base if he makes the team and possibly even at shortstop in an emergency. Reflexes and quickness are vital on the left side of the infield, and of the other candidates on the list for middle-infield spots -- Carroll, Berroa and Blake DeWitt -- not one is listed as heavy as 200 pounds.

The Dodgers got more production from Belliard than they ever dreamed they would after they acquired him last year. But clearly, club officials aren't trusting that performance as much as they might if it were a larger sample size. The fact the weight clause exists is a clear indication of that, as is the fact they waited almost all winter, until after his price had been in free fall for a few weeks, to actually sign him.

Still, Dodgers manager Joe Torre sounds like a true Belliard believer.

"We have to give ourselves a lot of options," Torre said. "Belliard, just based on ... his versatility, can help this ballclub in a lot of ways. I talked to him last year when we made the deal and he came over from Washington, and we made no promises that he was even going to play. We just talked about seeing if we could get him enough at-bats. But all of a sudden, he just caught fire, and we really had no choice [but to play him]."

Even if he had washboard abs, Belliard probably couldn't count on being the Dodgers' everyday second baseman in 2010. The job is basically DeWitt's to lose. If DeWitt does lose it, and if Belliard makes weight, DeWitt will begin the season in Triple-A Albuquerque, and Belliard and Carroll will divvy up playing time at second.

Neither was signed to play 162 games, and neither will.

"[Belliard] was fine with a backup role last year," Torre said. "We know he can play regularly for a short period of time, because he did that last year. But there were probably some days when we put him out there that we probably should have sat him down."

One thing Belliard has going for him is that he is a Torre-type player, one whose career .339 on-base percentage doesn't tell the entire story of his ability to draw walks and take quality at-bats. Another is that he is one of the few players in the Dodgers' clubhouse this spring who actually owns a World Series ring, having snagged one with St. Louis in 2006 after the Cardinals acquired him from Cleveland at the trading deadline.

At this stage of his career, he would like nothing more than to get one more.

"I'm not thinking about money," Belliard said. "I'm just thinking about playing and having a long career. This is my 12th year in the big leagues, and I have done a lot of things. I have been to a World Series and an All-Star Game. I'm happy with myself. But I will be more happy if we can do what we weren't able to finish last year."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter or send him a question for his mailbag.