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A Year Ago Today

...or, more accurately, 366 days ago, the Mariners signed Pokey Reese to be their Opening Day shortstop. Although it was a short, inexpensive commitment, the contract went on to be one of the more frequently debated topics on team blogs and message boards for several weeks - on the one hand, Reese was an incredible defensive infielder whose presence would give Jose Lopez more time to develop in AAA, but on the other, he couldn't hit, he got injured too often, and Lopez didn't need any more seasoning in the minors anyway. It was a fairly intense argument, which was especially surprising given that the move itself was one of the more insignificant ones made all winter.

In the end, nobody got to see Reese do anything other than slide headfirst on the wrong set in a crappy commercial, as he proved his detractors right by missing the entire season with a bum shoulder. Reese's 2006 option was declined, and that was that. His only legacy is that he currently holds the franchise record for Most Words Spent Talking About A Guy Per Games Played, a record that will stand until somebody finds a number higher than infinity.

As I was thinking about the Mariner Infielder That Wasn't, I was initially struck by the relative similarity between the (intended) shortstop positions in 2005 and 2006. Just like last year, this year's team plans on going into the season with a no-hit gloveman whose main purpose is to prevent runs, not create them. Then I started wondering why Betancourt has been treated so favorably this winter, while Reese was the target of considerable criticism last time around. What kind of bias is at play when you shun the free agent but welcome his Cuban equivalent with open arms?

The more I thought, the more I came to realize that the reason Betancourt has been treated better is because he's simply the superior player. He's younger, he's cheaper, he's less likely to get hurt, and just for good measure, he's not blocking anyone, either. And that was the end of that one-person argument.

My mind didn't stop there, though. "Go back in time a little bit," it said. So I did, to February of the year 2000, when the Mariners were close to sending the best player they'd ever had to Cincinnati. By that point, we'd known for a little while that Griffey was as good as gone; the only question was whether or not we'd get anyone worth a damn in return. It certainly didn't feel like we did when the trade was finally made official on the 10th, as Jim Bowden somehow managed to hang onto young infielder Pokey Reese despite Pat Gillick's best efforts. Reese was supposed to be the centerpiece of any Griffey deal, and the fact that he wasn't included was considered a major coup for Bowden and the Reds at the time.

Looking back, you have to dig a little deeper than usual to figure out why the Reds (and Mariners) were so high on Reese. Sure he was pretty young and pretty cheap, and his .285/.330/.417 batting line in 1999 looked all right, but it was still below the league average for second basemen, and at 26, he didn't have that much more room for improvement. It was never about his bat, though. In 1999, although Reese was only 16 runs above replacement at the plate, he was 56 runs above replacement in the field (according to Davenport Translations), enough to make him one of the best infielders in baseball. He was nearly as good as Roberto Alomar, and for 1/26th the cost.

That's a valuable player. Bowden knew it, Gillick knew it...hell, even Tom Verducci knew it, as he called Reese one of the two cornerstones of the future of the team (along with Sean Casey) the afternoon of the Griffey deal. Offense or not, Pokey Reese was destined to become something special.

As fate would have it, though, stardom wasn't in the cards. Reese's bat regressed significantly from its 1999 peak, and on top of that, injuries began to take a toll on his performance and, before long, his ability to remain on the field. All told, he's appeared in just 53% of his team's games played since 2000, and now that he's 32 years old and seemingly incapable of hitting better than many pitchers, he just isn't much of a player anymore. He's going to get a chance to stick with the Marlins in 2006, but let's be honest - the opportunity for Reese to be remembered as anything better than a guy who played good defense for a few years before falling off the map has long since passed him by.

To me, Yuniesky Betancourt looks like he could be the guy that Pokey Reese should've been. There are a few differences - Betancourt held his own in the Majors at a younger age, and has a little more upside with the bat - but the general player profile is the same, in that they're both all-world defensive infielders who're never going to be any better than league-average at the plate (and whose names come up when talking about trading for really good players). Triples and strikeouts aside, it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see Betancourt post a bunch of 1999 Reese seasons at his peak, which would make him one of the top shortstops in the game.

Due to the notorious unreliability of defensive metrics, a lot of people are going to look at Betancourt's annual batting lines and write him off as just another half-decent shortstop, but people in the know - I'm talking GMs, analysts, and Mariners fans who watch him every day - are going to know better. I'm not trying to sound smug or anything when I say that, either; it's just the nature of evaluating players whose glovework is their most valuable attribute. Guys like that require a closer look that many fans have neither the time nor desire to take.

As a middle infielder whose main contribution is his spectacular range, Betancourt's value is going to be particularly dependent on the health of his lower body, but as long as he's able to avoid the nagging injuries that have plagued so many of his counterparts, he should be a really good shortstop for a really long time. And the next time some fan of another team says that he's no better than Pokey Reese ever was, be sure to thank him for the compliment.