Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I swear, sometimes I think Dayton Moore is deliberately screwing with us.

Like the swallows to Capistrano, like the Trekkies to Comic-Con, Yuniesky Betancourt has returned home. The Kansas City Royals, the one organization in baseball with a greater disregard for the importance of plate discipline than Yuni himself, has welcomed the prodigal son back into its bosom. And I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The decision to re-sign Betancourt is really the quintessential Dayton Moore transaction: completely unexpected, laughable, infuriating, completely tone-deaf to the hard-core fan base – and yet, if you look at it in a certain light, it actually makes a perverse kind of sense. Depending on how willing you are to swallow the party line, you can actually convince yourself that it’s a good signing.

Start with the obvious: the Royals did not bring Betancourt back to be their everyday shortstop, or their everyday anything, really. They re-signed him with the explicit understand that he will be the team’s utility infielder, backing up at three positions and starting at none. While Yuni is patently unqualified to be a starting shortstop, pretty much every utility infielder in the major leagues is unqualified to be a starting shortstop – that’s why they’re on the bench.

By way of comparison, the Royals were rumored to be interested in signing Edgar Renteria for that role, and I was kind of excited by that possibility. There are guys enshrined in the Hall of Fame that didn’t have demonstrably better careers than Renteria has had. (That’s not an endorsement of Renteria for the Hall; it’s an indictment of the people who voted for Travis Jackson or Rabbit Maranville.) Renteria made it to the major leagues when he was 19*, and hit .309/.358/.399 as a rookie for the Marlins.

*: It was thought at the time that Renteria was 20 years old. A few years later it was revealed that Renteria had lied about his age and was just 15 when he signed. has his correct age, but to this day, for some reason the Bill James Handbook still lists him as being a year older than he is.

The following year Renteria became one of the few people in major-league history with a walk-off, World Series-ending hit, as the Marlins won a world championship. In 2003, he hit .330/.394/.480 for the Cardinals, and went back to the World Series with St. Louis the following year. As recently as 2007, he hit .332/.390/.470 for the Braves. He’s won two Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, and made five All-Star teams.

And with all that, I’m not sure he would be a better choice for the Royals’ utility infielder in 2012.

Renteria is 35 years old; Yuni turns 30 next month. This season, Renteria hit .251/.306/.348 in part-time play for the Reds, good for an OPS+ of 78. Yuni, playing every day for the Brewers, hit .252/.271/.381, for a 75 OPS+. Over the last three seasons – and remember, this includes Yuni’s atrocious 2009 campaign – Betancourt actually has a higher OPS+ (77) than Renteria (76).

You may have heard that Betancourt, despite being signed as a utility infielder, has only played nine games at second base in his career, and has never played third. Well, Renteria has all of seven innings of experience at second base, and has also never played the hot corner.

Yet somehow, I doubt that signing Renteria would have generated even a fraction of the anger that Betancourt’s signing did. Will McDonald, whose writing I greatly respect, tweeted in the aftermath of the press release: “What we learned today, once and for all: Royals will never make the playoffs under Dayton Moore.” I would have more sympathy for that position if, you know, Betancourt hadn’t just been the starting shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers, who won the NL Central and came within two games of the World Series.

Yes, Betancourt is a crappy player – but utility players are supposed to be crappy. Look around the majors. The Red Sox just guaranteed Nick Punto two years to be their utility guy. Punto had a fluky .388 OBP in 2011, in very limited playing time, but over the last three years he has a .241/.339/.315 line – good for a 79 OPS+ – and he’s 34. Our old pal Willie Bloomquist, who also has a 79 OPS+ over the last three years and is also 34, also got two guaranteed years from the Diamondbacks.

Incredibly enough, Bloomquist isn’t even the worst utility player the Diamondbacks signed to a two-year deal this winter. They also re-upped John McDonald, the David Howard of his generation (career line of .238/.275/.326, and a 59 OPS+), for two years.

If we focus on just the other four teams in the AL Central, here are some of the guys used in a utility infielder role in 2011:

Adam Everett (166 innings between shortstop, third base, and second base)
Orlando Cabrera (743 innings)
Ramon Santiago (642 innings)
Omar Vizquel (384 innings)
Luke Hughes (405 innings)
Trevor Plouffe (524 innings)
Matt Tolbert (491 innings)

None of these guys were exactly the second coming of Tony Phillips, or even Bill Pecota. I mean, Omar Vizquel is 67 years old*, and played all around the White Sox infield last season.

*: Approximate.

So in terms of quality, it’s hard to argue that Yuniesky Betancourt is not qualified for work as a team’s utility infielder. Yeah, he’s a terrible defensive shortstop, and he won’t suddenly become a better defensive shortstop coming off the bench. On the other hand, he has significantly more power than your typical utility infielder. He has a career .391 slugging average, and has hit 29 home runs the last two years. McDonald has hit 21 homers in his entire 13-year career.

It’s true that Betancourt has no real experience at second base or third base, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t adapt to both positions in fairly short order. The reality is that most veteran utility infielders spent most, if not all, of their careers as everyday shortstops until one day they weren’t. Vizquel, for instance, never started a game anywhere but at shortstop for the first twenty years of his career. Then, in 2009, with no team willing to give him a starting job at shortstop anymore, he seamlessly made the transition (at age 42) to being a utility infielder, and has performed that role ably for the last three years.

Renteria, as noted, may be making the same transition Betancourt’s being asked to make. Miguel Tejada played only shortstop for his first 13 years before moving to third base, and last year started a few games at second. Orlando Cabrera started at no position other than shortstop from 2000 through 2010, until he transitioned to a utility role this year. And so on.

So, IF the Royals use Betancourt in a pure backup role, I think he will prove up to the role. If 2011 was any indication, Ned Yost is going to ride his starters as much as possible anyway. Alcides Escobar played in 158 games this season. Even if Yost dials him back to 150 starts, that’s just 12 games that Betancourt starts at shortstop. Let’s say that Yost starts Mike Moustakas 150 times at third base, giving Betancourt the opportunity to start 12 times against tough* left-handers. Betancourt is a career .275/.308/.421 hitter vs. LHP; it won’t be the end of the world if he’s in the lineup against a southpaw.

*: By “tough”, I don’t mean “elite”, although I worry that’s what the Royals mean. I mean “left-handers who, by nature of their delivery, are much more difficult on left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters.”

So in an ideal world, Betancourt gets a couple dozen starts, maybe bats 100 or 150 times on the season, and all the anger about his return to Kansas City turns out to be a tempest in a thimble.

Royals fans do not live in an ideal world. There are a couple of ways this best-case scenario gets screwed up:

1) An injury forces Betancourt into the lineup for an extended period of time. If Escobar goes down, Betancourt is going to be the Royals’ starting shortstop, and there’s nothing you or I can do about that.

Honestly, that’s not the scenario that scares me. The fact is that with or without Yuni, an injury to Escobar was going to lead to some really bad options at shortstop. This season Escobar played all but 64 of the Royals’ innings at shortstop, and the scraps were given to Mike Aviles (29 innings), Chris Getz (26), and Yamaico Navarro (9). Before Betancourt signed, Plan B at shortstop was probably…Irving Falu? Rushing Christian Colon to the majors? Betancourt may be a replacement-level shortstop, but the Royals’ other options are probably below replacement-level.

With Getz and Giavotella fighting for the starting job at second base, and with the loser likely banished to Omaha, we’re probably (hopefully?) spared from being one injury away from having Yuni starting at second base every day. But the nightmare scenario is what happens if Mike Moustakas goes down.

This year, four players suited up at third base for the Royals: Moustakas, Wilson Betemit, Aviles, and Navarro. Only Moustakas is still in the organization. The only other Royal on the 40-man roster who has ever played a game at third base is Getz, who has spent all of nine innings at the position (and made an error on his only fielding chance.) There’s no one in the farm system who is remotely close to being able to start in the major leagues.

(Edit: Alex Gordon has played third base, obviously. It's just hard to envision the Royals moving him away from left field. Though, if the need arose, it would be an inspired move if they did.)

So if the thought of “Yuniesky Betancourt, everyday shortstop” scares you, brace yourself for “Yuniesky Betancourt, everyday third baseman”. That’s Stephen King-level terror right there. I don’t know about the rest of you, but personally, I’m prepared to chip in to pay for a protective bubble for Moustakas, along with a company of food tasters and an entire squadron of young men to carry him around in a litter.

2) Even if everyone stays healthy, the Royals may feel obligated to give Yuni considerable playing time.

On the surface, there should be no reason for this. Moustakas, Escobar, and Giavotella are all demonstrably better players than Betancourt, and are all young enough to get better. But on the other hand…the Royals didn’t guarantee Betancourt $2 million to collect splinters. This season Mitch Maier batted 113 times, roughly one-sixth as often as the Royals’ three everyday outfielders. While you would think that, in an ideal world, Betancourt would bat roughly as often as Maier did, paying $2 million for a guy who plays one-sixth of the time is the equivalent of paying $12 million for an everyday player.

That would be insane, which is why I suspect the Royals have no plans to limit Betancourt to 113 plate appearances, or anywhere close to that. If Chris Getz beats out Giavotella for the second-base job in spring training, I fully expect Betancourt and Getz to form an All-Suck Platoon at the position. (And honestly, if forced to choose between Getz and Betancourt against a left-handed starter, I’d probably go with Betancourt myself.) But even if Giavotella wins the job, I’m terrified that the Royals will find a way to make Yuni at least a part-time starter at second base.

Betancourt has been an everyday player since he reached the major leagues. I have to think he understands that his days of playing 150 games a season are probably over. But I honestly don’t think he would have signed without some sort of assurance that he would start at least 50 or 60 games in 2012. Which is about 30 or 40 games too many.

Even in a best-case scenario, where everyone stays healthy and Yuni gets one start a week rotating at all three positions, there are two other factors that I think are going to limit his value to the team:

1) While Betancourt has little value as an occasional substitute in the everyday lineup, he has almost no in-game value as a bench player.

You’d like your bench players to do something well. In an era where teams are carrying four or even three bench players, you’d prefer your bench guys to do multiple things well. This is why I’m a Brayan Pena fan – having a catcher who doesn’t bat right-handed gives you a pinch-hitting option in the late innings against the many right-handed relievers that rely on a fastball and slider and have big platoon splits. Jarrod Dyson might not have the skills to be an everyday outfielder, but his speed and defense make him an outstanding bench player. Dyson could easily play in 70 or 80 games in a season without starting even one of them.

But what, exactly, does Betancourt do? Play defense? Don’t make me laugh. He’s not a particularly good runner, certainly not for a shortstop – he’s stolen 19 bases in the last five seasons combined. He has pop, but not enough that you’d want to pinch-hit with him in a situation where you really need a home run. (The only two players in the everyday lineup who Betancourt has a pronounced edge in power are Escobar and whoever is the starting second baseman.) He’s the last player in the world you’d want at the plate when you need someone to get on base to start a rally. He bats right-handed, so he’s not going to get the platoon advantage over someone like Escobar or Salvador Perez in the late innings.

Basically, the only utility I could see him having in the late innings is to pinch-hit for a left-handed hitter in a key situation. Here’s the problem: the Royals have only three left-handed hitters in their starting lineup. And their names are Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas. Maybe you could justify pinch-hitting for Moose with Yuni against a left-hander with a sidearm delivery, a situation which might happen five or ten times all season. Given how rarely Betancourt strikes out (he’s never whiffed more than 64 times in a season), I suppose he might come in handy when you’ve got the winning run on third base with one out and just want someone to make contact. But again, that’s a situation that might come up once or twice a month.

Otherwise, Betancourt’s role off the bench will probably be limited to sub in for Escobar or Getz on defense after some other bench player has already been used to pinch-hit. Yost has intimated that he will be more aggressive about making in-game substitutions, but even so, Yuni’s primary duties in about 80% of the Royals games will be to take his place in the high-five line after a home run. In a best-case scenario.

2) Betancourt has been an everyday player for his entire major-league career; we have no idea how he’s going to handle a part-time role.

Three weeks ago, the Royals traded Yamaico Navarro for pennies on the dollar, and the only explanation anyone could come up with was that he was a real negative, disruptive force in the clubhouse, something you can’t tolerate from a part-time player. On paper, Navarro is a better hitter than Yuni, he couldn’t possibly be a worse fielder, and he’s six years younger.

While the Royals could not put up with Navarro, they had no compunction bringing back Yuni. Betancourt, remember, was run out of Seattle as much because of his poor work ethic as because of his performance. No one doubted Yuni’s inherent skills – that’s why Dayton wanted him – but he exasperated teammates and coaches alike because he wasn’t interested in putting the time in to get better. He gained weight and thickness in his lower half, and his defense went from tolerably bad to intolerably horrible.

Now, there’s a big difference between a player who isn’t working hard and a player who actively antagonizes his teammates. And having checked with some sources, I’ve been reassured that there were no issues with Betancourt as a teammate since he left Seattle – he was well liked by his teammates in both Kansas City and in Milwaukee. I think that’s an important distinction to make: his work ethic might be aggravating, but his personality isn’t. It’s hard to imagine that the Royals would have brought him back if that weren’t the case.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Betancourt, for the first time since he was brought to the majors in July, 2005, can’t show up at the ballpark with the expectation that he’ll be in the lineup. It’s cruelly ironic that Betancourt one undeniable skill throughout his career has been his durability. When the Royals first traded for him in 2009, he was on the DL, which is notable in that it’s the only DL stint of his career. Betancourt defected from Cuba in 2004, signed with the Mariners before the 2005 season, and with the exception of 2009, has played in over 150 games every year since.

So I think it’s fair to wonder what will happen when Betancourt, for the first time in his career, isn’t in the starting lineup the majority of the time. Are we certain that he’s going to be a supportive teammate? Are we certain that he’s going to be mentally and physically prepared to come off the bench at a moment’s notice? Are we really sure that, freed from the expectation of playing every day, he won’t let himself go, and gain even more weight than he already has?

I’m pretty sure the answer to the first question is “yes”. I think the answer to the second question is “yes” – even if his head isn’t entirely in the game, I can’t imagine any Neifi Perez-like tantrums. There’s no pretense here – Yuni was signed to fill a bench role, and if he didn’t want one, he should have signed elsewhere. But it’s the third question that has me worried. Yuni is stretched to play shortstop in the shape he’s in now – if he gains any additional weight, he becomes even more unplayable than he already is.

A week before the Royals signed Betancourt, the Washington Nationals quietly inked another ex-Royal, Andres Blanco, to a minor-league contract. Regardless of who would make the better everyday player, given the composition of the Royals’ roster, Blanco would make a lot more sense as a bench player. He’s an above-average defender at all three positions, he switch-hits, he can take a walk, and he’s already accepted his fate as a bench player – over the past three years he’s played in 157 games, and hit a respectable .258/.307/.345. Yet while Blanco was forced to accept a minor-league deal, Yuni got $2 million with incentives.

So as strange as this is to say, I don’t object to the Betancourt signing in terms of his talents as a player. I object to the signing because I think he’s a poor fit with the rest of the roster, I think he’s being paid too much, which will incentivize the Royals to play him more than he should, and I think that there’s a very real chance he will have trouble adjusting to his sudden loss in playing time. Bringing back Yuni was a bad idea.

But I’m not going to go so far as to say that there’s no way this can work out. I’ve had these battles with the Royals before; you may remember my reaction to the Willie Bloomquist signing. But while I may have won the battle on that one – Bloomquist’s mythical “winning” qualities didn’t keep the Royals from losing 192 games in his two seasons with the team – the Royals won the war, because in the end Bloomquist was a mostly harmless backup player who wasn’t worth the vitriol I expended on him. He had no business batting nearly 500 times in 2009, but that’s a failing of the Royals’ roster construction, not a failure to appreciate Bloomquist’s talents.

So while I disagree with the Betancourt signing, and think that Moore made another mistake, I’ve said my piece and made my peace with it. If Yuni plays as much as Bloomquist did, it will hurt the Royals significantly – but if he plays as much as Bloomquist did, something will have gone wrong above and beyond the decision to re-sign him.

Dayton Moore has made a number of mistakes on the free-agent market, and it is possible, even likely, that this is another one. But I think Sam Miller’s tweet on this subject is worth remembering. A year ago, the Royals fan base didn’t exactly embrace the Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur signings. Betancourt certainly has less upside than either of them – but, owing to his bench role, he has less downside as well.

So while I think bringing Yuni back is a bad idea, I’d love to see him make me a liar. Yuni’s glaring weaknesses only make his occasional triumphs that much more exhilarating, as when an otherwise bad season in 2010 was punctuated by three grand slams. Those of you who follow me on Twitter know I was openly rooting for him to come through with clutch hits for the Brewers in the playoffs. Baseball is a crazy game, and what better way to illustrate the capricious nature of the sport than for Yuniesky Betancourt to come through with a franchise-altering hit in 2012?

So, to sum up: do I think that bringing Yuni back is a sign that the Royals have no clue what they’re doing? No. Do I think that he has the ability to be a competent utility infielder? I do. Am I worried that the Royals will over-utilize and over-expose him? Yep. Do I have concerns as to how he will adapt to a bench role? Certainly.

Do I think the Royals should have signed him? No way.

Am I rooting for him to prove me wrong? Absolutely.