Betancourt looks to prove doubters wrong

Betancourt looks to prove doubters wrong

Betancourt looks to prove doubters wrong
PHOENIX -- Brewers pro scout Dick Groch remembers watching then-prospect Alcides Escobar play shortstop at Double-A Huntsville in 2007 and 2008. He'd call general manager Doug Melvin with reports, but struggled to describe Escobar's acrobatics in a way that was believable.

"Every day was a highlight video," Groch said. "He did something every day that took your breath away."

Escobar showed flashes of that ability last year as a Brewers rookie, and Groch believes that he'll show much more in the years ahead. But Escobar's Major League maturation will happen in Kansas City, where he and three other young players will continue their careers in the wake of the December trade that brought 2009 Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke.

Which brings us to the Brewers' new shortstop, 29-year-old Cuban import Yuniesky Betancourt, a living lightning rod who once prompted this line from one of the country's best sportswriters:

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"In 300 years," Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski predicted two years ago, "kids will be sitting around a campfire and singing songs about how bad a shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt was."

Groch and other Brewers officials have been trying to convince their fans that Betancourt is not that bad since mid-December, when the club pulled the trigger on the blockbuster that brought Greinke to Milwaukee. In the initial coverage of the deal, Betancourt and the $2 million kicked in by Kansas City were almost an afterthought.

Betancourt, who says Greinke is, "in another level," understands that Greinke was the headline-grabber. Speaking to reporters with catcher Mike Rivera serving as translator, he indicated a desire to impress Milwaukee's fans.

"When the season starts and the game starts, everybody is going to know what kind of player I am," Betancourt said. "I'm going to go out and play hard."

If he plays well, perhaps he'll quiet his sabermetric-savvy critics. They don't like much about Betancourt's game, from his .296 on-base percentage in six Major League seasons and his nearly three-to-one ratio of strikeouts to walks to negative zone ratings in the field.

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Fangraphs.com put Betancourt's ultimate zone rating (UZR) at -9.5 runs last season, third worst among Major League shortstops. Former Tampa Bay Ray Jason Bartlett and the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez fared worse. Stats, Inc. rates Betancourt as the worst defensive shortstop in baseball over the past six seasons by zone rating.

He also fares poorly in terms of WAR (wins above average), a metric that aims to sum up a player's value to his team by comparing his contributions at the plate and in the field to the average bench player or Minor League call-up. On Fangraphs.com, two WAR is considered average, and zero is "replacement level." Betancourt tied for the 2010 Royals' team highs with his 16 home runs and 78 RBIs, but was only 0.6 wins above average, according to the site, tying him for the second least valuable shortstop in baseball. Only the Orioles' Cesar Izturis (-0.3 WAR) fared worse in that metric.

Baseball-reference.com uses a different formula for WAR, and rated Betancourt only slightly better, at 1.7 wins. But in that scale, 0-2 is considered a reserve-level player and two and higher is a "starter."

This is the type of stuff that makes many in uniform wrinkle their noses. That's essentially what Brewers manager Ron Roenicke did when someone asked whether Betancourt was a liability.

"No," Roenicke said, with a tone that lets you know that he considers the premise of the question unfair.

"I don't think it's fair to try to figure out on a computer how good a guy is defensively," Roenicke said. "You don't know what's in his head. Is he positioning himself right? Ozzie Smith is the best shortstop I've ever seen, and part of that was that Ozzie was so smart, he defensed himself so good."

The Brewers added an "eye in the sky" to their coaching staff for 2011, and one front office official said he believes Betancourt will be better with better positioning.

Groch has an interesting outlook because he's the man who scouted and signed the Yankees' Derek Jeter, a star player who fares extremely poorly in defensive metrics.

When asked whether Betancourt was as bad as everybody seems to contend he is, Groch considered his answer.

"There are 30 Major League shortstops," he said. "Not everybody can be No. 1, and not everybody is 30."

Later, he put it this way: "You're dealing with apples to apples. Red apples and green apples and yellow apples, but all apples. I don't know if that answers your question."

The answer is that the Brewers would like Betancourt to be somewhere in the middle, both at the plate and in the field. They believe that he brings more of an offensive dimension than the defense-first Escobar. They'll be thrilled with the trade if Greinke returns to his Cy Young Award form.

"What do you want him to do? Bring all five tools?" Groch said. "Not everybody can do that."

Betancourt has heard every one of the criticisms. He said he plans to work this spring on being more accurate with his throws, and wants to be smarter about when to try a long, off-balance throw and when to simply hold the ball.

Offensively, he was happy with his home run and RBI totals in 2010, but not his .259 average and his .288 on-base percentage.

Plenty of people have told him that he needs to walk more, and Betancourt vowed to work on it.

"Yeah, people tell me about it, but it's in my blood," he said. "Latin people don't walk too many times. We just go up there and swing."

"I'm not so opposed to a guy at the bottom of the order swinging the bat," Melvin said. "What are you doing -- you're going to get a walk to get to the pitcher, or get a walk to get to the No. 8 hitter. I know they say it turns the lineup over, but sometimes a guy has a chance to drive in some runs in the eighth inning."

Betancourt has never played an inning at Miller Park and was looking forward to seeing his new baseball home. The December trade took him by surprise, he said, but he's been welcomed into the Brewers clubhouse.

"I was shocked," Betancourt said. "I was home with my family, and I was kind of surprised about it. But I felt good about it, because I got traded to a team that looks like it has a good chance to win some ballgames and compete every day out there. I feel good about that trade."

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.