-- It is mid-May, not even summer yet in a season that stretches into fall.

Too soon to fit Adrian Beltre for a Triple Crown?

Too early to conclude that he has turned the corner, that expectation has become reality?

Who knows how it will play out, but this much seems certain: Los Angeles Dodgers fans should be capturing Beltre's ongoing evolution on the camera of their mind for a very good reason.

Which basically is this: They may not have the opportunity beyond 2004 -- and isn't that ironic?

By finally excelling instead of exasperating, the third baseman may be pricing himself out of Frank McCourt's highly leveraged operation.

It's this simple:

At 25, an age at which premium players are seldom eligible for the free agent market, Beltre is certain to test it in November.

By sustaining his current form, he also is certain to seek a multiyear contract that would not seem to fit McCourt's speculated intent to lower his $105 million payroll to $80 million.

If he is unable to sustain his current form, Beltre's future in Los Angeles is similarly tenuous. The Dodgers would be unlikely to invest another $5 million in a failing process.

So, Beltre is gone either way?

Well, the Dodgers' interest in signing the available Aaron Boone as third base insurance is a solid indication, as a person familiar with the club's thinking said, that they don't want to get boxed in by the Beltre uncertainty.

Boone is strictly a starting player. He might be willing to play second base for the remainder of the season once he has recovered in August from the left-knee injury that resulted in his release by the New York Yankees, but the belief is that he would want to play third base next year.

Amid a potentially combustible situation, Dodger General Manager Paul DePodesta is naturally cautious.

"Aaron Boone is a very nice player," he said. "There are a lot of teams he could help. At this point he's still recovering from a serious injury. Nothing can be gained by saying anything more."

Said a similarly cautious Beltre, reflecting on his contract situation:

"I don't like to think about it. If I am going to stay here or not. . . . I can't control that. I want to keep doing great and then see what happens. I want to stay here, but who knows if they want to keep me here.

"We have to see what they're going to do. It's something I can't think about now. All I can think about now is trying to do my best, keep doing what I'm doing and trying to get into the playoffs. The fans need that because we haven't been there for a while."

Fans and others never quite know what to make of Beltre -- is he the torrid hitter of April and May or the frustrating slugger of too little plate discipline and too many strikeouts?

A guy whose inconsistency exasperated some recent club officials to the extent they would just as soon have given him away despite his obvious potential.

Of course, what has tended to be forgotten in all of the Beltre debates is how he was fast-tracked through Class AA, skipped Class AAA, found himself in the new culture of Los Angeles at a young age and set an early standard by batting .290 in 2000 with 20 home runs and 85 RBI.

Amid all of the adjustments in the past few years, there also was the distracting legal and contract battle over his correct age, the debilitating ramifications from his appendectomy in the Dominican, the disconcerting trade rumors and the tantalizing potential.

Didn't Beltre hit 21 home runs with 75 RBI in 2002, 23 with 80 in 2003? Didn't he go into the 2004 season having hit more home runs than any major league player under 25 other than Albert Pujols?

"Everyone kept talking about how big of a disappointment he was, but he was still going 20 and 80, and I know a lot of teams that would have still taken that," teammate Paul Lo Duca said in the context of where Beltre is now.

"He was still only 22, 23, 24, and it was only a matter of time. People forget he didn't have that much time in the minor leagues, and he was still learning here. People don't understand how tough it is to learn at this level."

Beltre entered the weekend batting .379 with 10 home runs and 28 RBI. Clearly, a lot of things have come together, including the six years of hard lessons.

New batting coach Tim Wallach has closed Beltre's stance, encouraged him to use his power to the opposite field and worked on his mental approach.

"I always thought it was my mechanics that needed [to be] fixed, but it was my mental approach more than anything that was missing," Beltre said. "I go to the plate with a lot more confidence now."

In addition, wife Sandra and 3-month-old daughter Cassandra have created a balance that also had been missing.

What DePodesta says he sees is a young player who was force fed at the major league level and has now made the adjustments necessary to be successful.

"Not only is it worthwhile for Beltre to go to right field as often as he now does," DePodesta said, "he doesn't give up anything doing it."

Every hit, however, is accompanied by the cha-ching of a cash register. In many ways, Beltre is the first test of McCourt's long-term intentions.

"We just hope [Beltre] continues to have the type of season he's having," DePodesta said. "If his contract becomes an issue, it's a problem we'd love to have."

Certainly, the Dodgers aren't going to say anything different at this point of a promising season. DePodesta even said he is open to discussing an extension during the season, but there's little chance of that. Agent Scott Boras seldom allows a client to forfeit his market eligibility in his walk year, and no one from the Dodgers has approached him with an offer.

McCourt hasn't even introduced himself to the renowned agent even though they are often separated by only a few yards while watching games from the premium seats at Dodger Stadium, a curious development considering Boras also represents Eric Gagne and Odalis Perez, and it would seem to be to McCourt's benefit to establish a relationship.

Boras makes the point that Beltre's situation is difficult to compare to any other recently signed third baseman because few free agents come on the market with premium statistics of the type Beltre is producing at 25. The potentially attractive Troy Glaus of the Anaheim Angels will be 28 when eligible for free agency in November, but most free agents, particularly third basemen, are 30 or older when they hit the market with experience and production comparable to that of Beltre.

"You have to look at A-Rod," Boras said, referring to the 10-year, $252 million signing of Alex Rodriguez, then 25, by the Texas Rangers in December 2000. Boras said he didn't mean that Beltre would qualify for a similar contract but that there are few 25-year-olds of that stature from which to draw comparisons.

"Adrian's ceiling can only grow," Boras said. "He'll have another five years before he's 30, and he would have a real advantage over other players in the market."

It's too late to suggest the Dodgers should have recognized this a year ago. At that point, the organization was split on whether he should even be retained, and his signing to a multiyear contract would have probably generated a barrage of media criticism.

Now it seems doubtful that a financially retrenching organization would pay the premium.

The clock is probably ticking on Beltre's future in Los Angeles, whether he goes on to turn the corner or not.

Dodgers' Adrian Beltre is among league leaders in average, home runs, RBI. Just 25, Beltre is in seventh big-league season.