Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is Yuniesky Betancourt Really the Best the Brewers Can Do?

I have to make a confession - it's not a lot of fun to talk about how bad a player is. These guys are playing baseball for a living, and as such their flaws are exposed to us in ways that other players are not. Baseball players have it particularly tough. Because baseball is made up of a series of individual events, everything is tracked and cataloged, unlike a player who plays a sport with more continuous action. So when a baseball player isn't good at something, it's pretty easy to point it out, statistically. It's hard enough to play baseball, it can't be any easier to have everyone say you stink. That's why I'll always have respect for guys like Carlos Pena or Al Leiter who put early career problems behind them to become very good. You have to have some thick skin to deal with the negativity that came with their performance. ,

So when I talk about someone not being good, I feel a little bit bad about it. There are exceptions, of course, guys who DESERVE it pointed out. A guy like Joba Chamberlain, who a season after having a 4.40 ERA shows up looking like his offseason workout regimen consisted of Twinkies and Law & Order reruns, and says things like "other than a couple bad outings, I think I had a great season" I feel no shame in mocking. Or Jason Marquis, who blames his problems on Leo Mazzone and Dave Duncan, two of the best pitching coaches of all time, can be called "difficult to coach" without much trouble. But what of Yuniesky Betancourt? As far as I know, he works hard, is a good teammate, and tries to improve. The problem with Betancourt is that he's not good enough to be a starting shortstop in the Major Leagues.

It's been written several times this winter that the Brewers are in "win-now" mode. With Prince Fielder a free agent after this season, the Brewers have emptied their farm system and checkbook, bringing on Zack Greinke, Shawn Marcum and Takashi Saito. I'm not totally sure how true this is, with Greinke and Marcum, along with Ryan Braun and (now) Rickie Weeks signed beyond 2011, but it has been the Hot Stove narrative, so let's go with it. If the Brewers feel they MUST win in 2011, there has to be a better option at shortstop than Betancourt.

Betancourt's offensive difficulties have been well-documented. For his career, he has a .272/.296/.393 slash line in over 3000 plate appearances. Over the past three years, those numbers have actually gone down to .262/.288/.384. Those are for his age 26 through 28 seasons, what should be his "peak." He has walked 104 times in his entire career, 10 fewer times than Prince Fielder did last season alone. He averaged only 3.18 pitches per plate appearance in 2010, down from 3.31 in 2009. His power jumped in 2010, with a career high with 16 homers, but he also experienced a notable rise in his strikeout rate - an amazing feat considering the drop in pitches seen. Over the past three years, those pitches per plate appearance are dead last in baseball. His on-base percentage is second worst, one point ahead of Pedro Feliz. His OPS is fourth worst, ahead of only Feliz, Jason Kendall, and Elvis Andrus.

Well, you might be thinking, "not every shortstop should be expected to hit like Alan Trammell." You'd be right too - there is still room for mediocre-hitting, slick fielding shortstops in the league. Elvis Andrus falls right into that category. Betancourt, however, may be an even worst fielder than he is a hitter. By UZR, only Delmon Young and Jermaine Dye have cost their teams more runs than Betancourt over the past three years. Of all the shortstops with over 1000 innings, the only ones worse per game have been Julio Lugo and Jeff Keppinger. Neither of those two are put at shortstop at any consistent basis - Betancourt is going to be starting for a team that plans on contending.

So, if Betancourt is the among the worst hitters in baseball, and among the worst defensive players in baseball, why will he be starting for the Brewers. Well, supposedly it's because they don't have anyone else, which pretty well misses the point. The term replacement level has been around for a few years. It's a pretty fluid measurement, but it's meant to mean the level of player freely available. Castoffs like Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria are better players. Long-since-forgotten minor league journeymen like Russ Adams and Luis Rodriguez are better players. The Brewers could have had any of them, but chose to do the least creative thing possible.

So, I hope Yuniesky Betancourt proves me wrong. I hope he goes out and hits 25 homers and plays defense that approaches league average. But, as a 29 year old, it's hard to anticipate a career season from Betancourt, which is what he'd need to give the Brewers in order to not hurt their playoff chances.

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