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Inbox: Will Betancourt be the man at short?

Inbox: Will Betancourt be the man at short?

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Welcome to 2011, where the scoreboard won't be the only new feature at Miller Park. The Brewers' flurry of December activity helped fill the Inbox, so let's empty it.

As of now, I hear that the Brewers' plan going into the season is to start Yuniesky Betancourt at short with Craig Counsel as the backup. What are the odds of the Brewers signing someone like Edgar Renteria or Orlando Cabrera to a one-year deal as a stop gap until something better comes up. From what I read, Betancourt seems like a bit of a defensive liability.
-- Eric B., Marinette, Wis.

I received a bunch of questions like this over the past two weeks from fans worried about the Brewers' plans for shortstop. But every indication so far from general manager Doug Melvin is that he's comfortable with the Betancourt/Counsell tandem, and that he's puzzled by the level of concern about Betancourt after getting him from Kansas City in the otherwise-popular Zack Greinke trade.

"Getting Betancourt back was key," Melvin said the day Greinke checked in at Miller Park. "I know that stat guys hate the guy. I don't know how they can say he's the worst player in baseball."

Melvin might have been talking about Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski, one of the best writers in sports, who did mention Betancourt among the least-valuable players in baseball at one point in 2009.

Betancourt is indeed criticized for his defense, but like all defensive measures, his shortcomings are more or less serious depending on the stat. Baseball-Reference.com ranked 28 regular shortstops by "fielding runs," a measure of a player's defense compared to the rest of the league, and Betancourt was 17th at -2. Alcides Escobar, the former Brewers shortstop traded to the Royals in the Greinke deal, was a notch lower at -3. The website baseballevaluation.com devised a stat called "Field Value" that considers factors like innings or games played, fielding percentage and range factor compared to other players, and it ranked Betancourt sixth of the 54 players considered. But Betancourt didn't fare so well in UZR, or ultimate zone rating, which measures the number of runs above or below average a fielder is in various categories. Betancourt ranked third worst among 21 qualifying players, according to Fangraphs.com, ahead of only Hanley Ramirez and Jason Bartlett.

Betancourt also gets low offensive marks from many serious observers because he doesn't get on base much (his .288 OBP last season was next to last among 22 qualifying shortstops on Fangraphs.com). But Melvin points out that he's only 29 and showed improvement at the plate in 2010 from a terrible '09 season split between the Mariners and Royals. In '10, Betancourt's 16 home runs and 78 RBIs tied for Kansas City's team lead in both categories.

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"I'm not so opposed to a guy at the bottom of the order swinging away," Melvin said. "What are you doing? You're going to get a walk to get to the pitcher? I know they say it turns the lineup over, but sometimes those [No. 7 or 8] guys have a chance to drive in a run in the eighth inning."

The ultimate measure here could be "wins above replacement," a widely used stat that asks what teams would lose if they had to replace a player, say, if he was injured, with another player off the bench or from the Minor Leagues. In the Fangraphs rankings, Betancourt tied with -- guess who? -- Escobar near the bottom of the rankings, with a 0.6 WAR. Only Cesar Izturis of the Orioles was less valuable, according to that list. In the Baseball-Reference.com measure, Betancourt is tied with the Yankees' Derek Jeter for 13th of 26 shortstops who played at least 100 games, with a 1.3 WAR. Alcides Escobar was last on that list, at --0.7 (though he's going to move up that chart as the years go on).

So, is Betancourt Troy Tulowitzki? No way. Nobody inside or outside of Miller Park is saying that. But if you go get someone else in a trade or via free agency, you'd have to ask what's the margin of upgrade and what else are you giving up?

The Brewers don't like the answers to either question, so they're going to give Betancourt a shot.

With the recent trade, is there any thoughts of moving Corey Hart to center and looking at Mat Gamel in right due to Carlos Gomez's struggles last year?
-- Steve G., Greendale, Wis.

Don't see it. Gomez is different than Betancourt in that one phase of his game is excellent -- his defense -- and the Brewers are willing to give him a chance to boost that on-base percentage. I see Gomez getting the majority of starts and left-handed-hitting Chris Dickerson, a very nice player when he's healthy, playing against the tough right-handers.

Is it possible that the Brewers will consider extending Greinke, Shaun Marcum and maybe even Prince Fielder if they contend in 2011? I'd love to see them keep a winning team in order for more than two years.
-- Adam S., Menomonee Falls, Wis.

Yeah, they would like to keep a winning team in order for more than two years, too. I'd say Marcum is the most likely to be agreeable to an extension, considering his health history and the fact he's relatively less accomplished in the Major Leagues than the other two players you mentioned. Melvin has made it very clear in public comments that he'd like to explore keeping Greinke in Milwaukee longer than the two years left on Greinke's deal. Here's the first thing he told me over the telephone when discussing the trade:

"This is sort of a 'now' deal," Melvin said. "But I told Zack Greinke this, 'It feels like we got CC Sabathia, but we got him for two years, and maybe even longer.' That's the difference."

As for Fielder, until someone gives me a list of high-profile Scott Boras clients who decided not to test free agency, I'm guessing that Fielder's days in Milwaukee are numbered. But, who knows? Stranger things have happened this winter.

Why haven't the Brewers signed John Axford to a long-term deal yet?
-- Jeramy G., Reedsburg, Wis.

They haven't because there's absolutely no incentive from the club's perspective to do so right now. Axford still has at least five years of club control, including two years at a near-minimum salary. If he has another great year, maybe it's something to look at as a way to set some cost certainty over Axford's arbitration seasons. But there are way more pressing matters today.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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