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Youth Movement: Yuniesky Betancourt

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It's hard to believe that the "other" kid in the middle infield is actually older than Jose Lopez, since he's barely been around a year and looks about 13. Ask any non-Mariners fan about Betancourt and you'll get the same reply every time:

"Who?"

Such is the case when you're talking about a defense-first rookie in the Northwest who's been playing baseball in the States for all of one summer. Give it time, though. They'll hear about him. This guy won't be flying under the radar much longer.

Background: Yuniesky Betancourt's is probably the second-most interesting story on the team (just behind Matt Thornton's "How in Sam Hell did I get here?" tale of woe and pandemic misfortune). Betancourt spent 3+ seasons playing with Villa Clara of the Cuban National League before deciding to try and flee the country with a teammate late in 2003. Four days after setting off in a tiny boat with a small motor, Betancourt landed in Cancun, Mexico, free from a country he was glad to escape. After playing a handful of games in the Mexican Winter League in early 2004, Betancourt set about trying to impress Major League scouts a little further north, trying out in front of several teams in Los Angeles and then again with the Mariners a few days later. It took a while, but by the end of January 2005, Betancourt had himself a contract, a four-year ML deal with Seattle. This despite not playing any sort of professional baseball for more than a calendar year. Sent directly to San Antonio, Betancourt showed enough glove, bat, and speed to advance quickly and collect more than 200 at bats in the big leagues, becoming the odds-on favorite to be the Mariners' starting shortstop through the end of the decade. If that isn't living the classic American dream, I don't know what is.

Offense: Since the day he was signed, we've been told that Betancourt is a flashy defensive shortstop who can make contact and run a little bit. And I think that's kind of sunk in, because whenever we talk about the guy going forward, it's always about how awesome he is in the field, and how that'll make up for his shortcomings at the plate. But is he really that bad of a hitter? After all, his minor league numbers weren't that bad, and this was after essentially taking a year off from competitive baseball. Seems like we might not be giving him enough credit.

In the Majors, Betancourt didn't look very good. He was occasionally able to drive a ball into the gap, and he drew a surprising amount of walks, all things considered, but his triples were the only thing keeping his SLG alive, and his approach left a lot to be desired. He faced just 3.18 pitches per plate appearance, which would've ranked him second-to-last in the league over a full season, ahead of only Robinson Cano (3.05). Betancourt is an aggressive hacker. It's an approach that can work well for a guy with his speed, but it's never going to let him turn into much of an on-base or power threat, because he isn't the kind of guy who's going to work many counts in his favor. We talked about this in regards to Jose Lopez just a few days ago. The difference is that Lopez actually has some upper body mass and a track record of smacking a few extra-base hits, while Betancourt doesn't, and doesn't. Lopez stands a good chance of turning into a .450-SLG guy in his peak, while Betancourt's probably going to top out in the lower-.400's.

While it feels like we got a good idea of Betancourt's offense during his trial in Seattle, 200 AB's is still 200 AB's, so we need a bigger sample. That's where his minor league numbers come in. In both San Antonio and Tacoma, Yuniesky looked like the same type of hitter as he was with the Mariners - pretty good contact, few walks, productivity driven by batting average. His .766 OPS with the Rainiers actually looks pretty good for a middle infielder until you realize that the league-average hitter in the PCL put up a .278/.350/.442 batting line. It's a hitter-friendly league. The Texas League is more neutral, so it should come as no surprise that Betancourt's numbers were considerably worse with the Missions than they were with the Rainiers.

We're still only talking about one year, though, and his first year in the States to boot. What about his Cuban numbers? Before fleeing his native country, Betancourt put up a career .287 BA, flashing the exact same profile (aggressive, speedy, triples drive his SLG) as he did in the Mariner organization. Which sounds great until you realize that he played in what Clay Davenport labeled as a "rocket-fueled offensive environment." Between 2001-2003, the league-average BA in the Cuban National League was .295; in 2004, it came in at .288, the lowest it had been in four years but still higher than the BA for any single professional league in North America. Cuba's OBP was also right at the top, thanks in part to an alarmingly high HBP rate. The point: Betancourt put up his Cuban numbers in what was really the most hitter-friendly league in the Northern Hemisphere. So, yeah, take them with a grain of salt.

For those of you who're more visually inclined, the following is a chart comparing Betancourt's numbers to the league average for each of the six major stages of his career: Cuba 2001, Cuba 2002, Cuba 2003, and San Antonio/Tacoma/Seattle 2005. A value of "1" means that he was exactly average; a value above "1" means that he was better than the average, and a value below "1"...well, I think you get it. BA = Batting Average, Patience = OBP - BA, and Power = SLG - BA.

Betancourt's BA is consistently right around the average. His power kind of jumps around, but before coming to the States he was doing pretty well for himself, so we'll allow for an adjustment period. His patience has never been better than 33% below the average at any point in his career.

I think we can draw some conclusions from this chart. At his peak, Yuniesky Betancourt is probably going to have a decent BA and a respectable SLG, driven by his triples (he was never a HR threat in Cuba, either). He's going to need to hit a lot of singles to be considered much of an on-base threat, though, because it would take a considerable leap for his patience to come even close to the league average. Clay Davenport estimates that Betancourt's peak line will be .275/.310/.416, and I think that's reasonable, if a little conservative; I wouldn't be too terribly surprised to see a 10-20 point bump in each column, although I also wouldn't go so far as to expect it. In his first season in the United States, Yuniesky Betancourt hit a combined eight home runs, so there's reason to believe that a 10-15 HR season or two could be ahead of him, which would pretty sweet.

Here's what it boils down to: while Yuniesky Betancourt is a pretty exciting little player, we have absolutely zero evidence to support the notion that he'll ever be better than a league-average hitter at the best of times. He'll almost certainly be a little worse than that, because he doesn't walk, and it takes a special talent to maintain a good OBP without any plate discipline. There's just no reason to believe that Betancourt will be able to consistently hit .310+. Nothing in his statistical history suggests that there's even a remote chance of that happening. He should be a decent #8/9 hitter with enough pop to keep pitchers and outfielders honest, but he's going to finish in the bottom fourth of the league in OBP on a yearly basis.

Defense: The good news is that, while there's tons to say about Betancourt's stick, there's practically nothing that hasn't been said about his defense. When he was signed, the organization didn't know if he'd turn out to be a shortstop or second baseman long-term. Guess they've figured that one out. Betancourt has the hands, the arm, the awareness, and the lateral mobility to be the best defensive shortstop in baseball for the next ten years. He's going to kick Khalil Greene's ass in Total Web Gem Nominations, given that he's capable of doing those backhand-in-the-hole-then-throw-across-the-body-to-get-the-out plays with his eyes shut. Felix Hernandez is going to love how this guy shaves 10-20 points off his ERA by himself.

Other Stuff: For a guy with such incredible footspeed - he's probably one of the five or ten fastest players in baseball - Betancourt sure is lousy at stealing bases. He was successful on just 20 of 35 attempts (57.1%) in the Mariner organization this year after going 37-68 (54.4%) in Cuba. Coaching and experience should help, as the biggest part of being a successful base-stealer is being able to read the pitcher's eyes and lift leg, but Betancourt has a ways to go before we can count on him swiping 25 bases without getting caught 20 times. The good news is that you don't really need to read anything special to pick up a triple, which Yuniesky should do in spades. Three-baggers added 23 points to his SLG last year, and he was just getting started.

It's also worth pointing out that, unlike with conventional prospects drafted out of high school or college, Betancourt is learning about life in the US as he's learning about baseball, so his development curve may be a little slower than it would be for someone else. At the same time, though, he's shown an eagerness to learn as much as possible all the time whenever he's on or near a baseball field, which is the kind of attitude that coaches love to see in their players. He's a quick learner. How else do you explain the fact that he held his own in the Majors just months after signing? That's the kind of thing that bodes well for his likelihood of avoiding a career washout. Betancourt is both determined and eager to learn, so he should be able to make adjustments far quicker than someone more thick-headed. Unlike Jose Lopez, there won't be any questions about Betancourt's hustle or drive.

("Brief") Summary: Yuniesky Betancourt rules. If ever you're going to let yourself fall in love with a position player who doesn't hit very well, this is the guy. He made an instant adjustment to baseball in the States, flashing the kind of leather that'll keep him employed for the next decade. He also showed enough ability at the plate to keep from being considered the new Wilson Valdez, an automatic out with a shiny glove. He's unlikely to ever hit much better than Orlando Cabrera or Luis Rivas, but he's going to save enough runs in the field to make himself an incredibly valuable player, at least until he starts getting expensive. Flashy defensive shortstops with contact bats are the new black. Believe it. Outside of Jhonny Peralta and maybe Bobby Crosby, I wouldn't trade this guy for any other shortstop in baseball.