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Community Projection: Yuniesky Betancourt

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The fourth in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each(?) of the players we predicted last spring.

LL/USSM Community: .291/.321/.424
Actual Line: .279/.300/.392

Popular opinion of Yuniesky Betancourt, 2005: This guy's going to be a hell of a player. A franchise cornerstone.
Popular opinion of Yuniesky Betancourt, 2006: Building block. There might not be 25 other players in baseball for whom I'd trade this guy tomorrow.
Popular opinion of Yuniesky Betancourt, 2007: A good player, and a good value. Useful regular to have on the team.
Popular opinion of Yuniesky Betancourt, 2008: trade trade trade trade trade trade trade

There is no more compelling evidence that people are beginning to understand how important it is to be good in the field than the fans' total 180 on Betancourt over the past couple seasons. Yuni came up as an exciting sparkplug of a shortstop who was beloved by casual fans and statheads alike, but despite remaining the same offensive player he's always been, slowly but surely people have turned against him, because the wizard who was once capable of turning any groundball into an easy play has morphed into a fat sack of crap in a pointy hat with stars and moons on it.

It's difficult to overstate just how significant an impact Yuni's defensive decline has had on his local reputation, because again, seriously, his hitting hasn't changed. I know last year's .691 OPS looks a lot worse than 2007's .725, and that his wOBA* has bounced around between .301 and .335, but his skillset's pretty much exactly the same as it was when he first came up as a rookie. Yuni swings. At everything. Then he runs. Some of the time he gets to first base. He's an aggressive hacker who always makes contact and rarely hits the ball into the seats. His swing rate has changed a little bit over the years, and the same goes for his groundball rate as well, but these aren't really significant, and altogether we get the sort of hitter who's mighty easy to project. .280-.300 BA, a handful of walks, and a handful of homers. Bam. Done. For years, Dave's been talking about how Betancourt's skillset gives him a low offensive ceiling, and that's exactly what we're dealing with. The Yuni we've seen at the plate is about as good as we're ever going to see him, and there's not really anything anyone can do about it.

Oh, people thought something was up in 2008. When Yuni's OPS flirted with .600 a few times over the course of the season, there was mounting concern that he had just all-around suffered a total collapse. But at least offensively, those concerns were unwarranted, as Yuni rode a hot 200 at bats down the stretch to end up within his established range. His triple slash line drop was driven almost exclusively by BABIP, and that's just the nature of the beast when you put the ball in play as often as Yuni does. There wasn't anything wrong with his bat in 2008 anymore than there was anything wrong with his bat in 2007, and going forward, I don't see any reason to believe that things will be different in 2009.

But the defense. Cursed defense.

2006 2007 2008
+/- -3 plays -10 -19
UZR -6 runs -3 -31*
PMR +9 plays -4 -14
RZR -4 plays -18 -30

* - projection as of early June; final number not posted

Egads.

It's easy to argue with one metric. UZR and I, for example, seem to disagree on Ichiro, and given that the other metrics back me up, that argument is as yet unresolved. But when pretty much all of the big players when it comes to defensive quantitation come together to hold a big flashing neon sign that says THIS GUY IS FALLING APART it's way more difficult to maintain that they're wrong. UZR thinks Yuni collapsed. Plus/minus thinks Yuni collapsed. PMR thinks Yuni collapsed. RZR thinks Yuni collapsed. If you're a Betancourt supporter, what're you supposed to do? How is anyone supposed to look at this data, combine it with visual observation, and come away thinking that Yuni's any better than a mess in the field?

It's borderline unfathomable to consider that Yuni got this bad this quick, but here we are, and this is our reality. If we apply a smoothing curve, over the past four seasons Yuni's gone from great to average to bad to terrible. Four seasons. He did that in four seasons. Between 23-26 Yuni's aged like twice as hard as Omar Vizquel in one-fifth as long. He appears to the naked eye to be visibly larger than he was back in the day, and while some of that is muscle, some of it isn't, and it's not hard to imagine that this has had a negative effect on his range. Range that is an entirely different kind of jaw-dropping now than it was when Yuni first came up.

In 2008, Yuniesky Betancourt was a disaster of a defensive shortstop, and combined with below-average defense, the overall package was a replacement-level player. Replacement-level players aren't assets. They are, by definition, easily replaceable. The magician around whom we thought this team would be building back in 2005 took four years to turn into the sort of guy you can pick up for free, and were I to compose a list of the biggest Mariner-related letdowns since I started blogging, Yuni's career would be somewhere near the top. We basically just lost a blue-chipper for nothing. It's like we packed a suitcase for vacation then mistakenly picked up the wrong bag from the carousel on the other end. It's hard to enjoy vacation when instead of clothing and a camera you have to make do with documents and corn.

Projecting Betancourt now is an exercise in disappointment. The ~.320-.330 wOBA* is about what we always expected, but having to put a minus in front of the 10 in the Defense column invariably evokes a deep, heavy sigh. If you think Yuni's a -10 defender, he's a 0.5-1.0 WAR shortstop. If you think he's a -5 defender, he's a 0.9-1.4 WAR shortstop. If you think he climbs all the way back up to average, he's a 1.3-1.8 WAR shortstop. But that's as good as it gets. And considering that last year he was more like -15, it's all but impossible to be optimistic. Even given that he started to look more energetic in the field down the stretch, I can't imagine that he'll ever be able to climb back out of the negatives. No matter what was wrong with him in 2008, I'm afraid that the magnitude of Yuni's defensive decline is such that the process is essentially irreversible. While he may recover some, he'll never recover it all, and he will therefore never be the player we thought he could be.

The time is now to say goodbye and trade Yuni before his reputation around the league catches up to his reputation around here. Make no mistake: there are still a lot of front offices that love him as a player. People who don't have to watch him everyday assume he's still one of the top gloves at his position, and a recent player survey called Yuni one of the top defensive infielders in the American League. People who think Yuni is a good player are wrong, and people who are wrong and have things to trade are good people to call on the phone. I mean, the Dodgers are sniffing around Jack Wilson. The Tigers are sniffing around Julio Lugo and Alex Cora. The Giants are sniffing around Edgar Renteria. The Royals have coveted Yuni for as long as I can remember. Teams need shortstops, and teams like Yuni. This is a good combination. And perhaps now that we have a new front office in town, we'll finally be able to remove the "untouchable" tag from Yuni that Bavasi inextricably affixed and move him in return for more than he's worth. Because at this point, there's nothing to gain by letting him stick around. Yuni may be able to get a little better going forward as he regresses to the mean, but his career ceiling - which was already modest - now appears wholly unreachable, and he's not in line to be an important part of the next contending team in Seattle. Move him. Move him for the value that I'm almost certain would be offered. It doesn't count as selling low if the buyer isn't aware of the low in the first place, and I can think of few things more exciting for this team looking ahead than the opportunity to rebuild up the middle.

Do it. Do it and don't look back.