SweetSpot: Yuniesky Betancourt
10. Angels give $125 million to Josh Hamilton. It's easy to forget that Hamilton hit 43 home runs and finished fifth in the MVP voting with the Rangers last season. But that was fueled by a huge first half. A big increase in strikeouts compared to 2011 and an increasingly poor approach at the plate were warning signals that he could be a risky investment. Hamilton salvaged his season a little in the second half, but he's still a guy with a .304 OBP and the Angels will be on the hook for $30 million a season in 2016 and 2017 -- his age 35 and 36 seasons.
9. Rockies give rotation spot to Jeff Francis. Francis had a 5.00 ERA with the Rockies in 2010. He had a 4.82 ERA with the Royals in 2011. He had a 5.58 ERA with the Rockies in 2012. The Rockies thought it was a good idea to give him 11 starts. Look, if three guys get hurt and you have to use Francis to fill in, OK. But 11 starts? He went 2-5 with a 6.61 ERA.
8. Yankees have no backup plan for Derek Jeter. Knowing Jeter's return from last October's broken ankle didn't have an exact timetable, and knowing his defense was an issue even when he was healthy, the Yankees needed an alternative plan -- and, no, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez weren't good ideas. I advocated early in the season that the Yankees go after defensive whiz Brendan Ryan, a move the team finally made in September. Nix, a .214 career hitter entering the season, didn't hit much and Nunez, a terrible fielder, rated at minus-28 Defensive Runs Saved, the worst total of any player in the majors.
7. Brewers pretend Yuniesky Betancourt is still a major league player. Giving Betancourt 396 plate appearances is kind of like giving up. Betancourt hit .280 with six home runs and 21 RBIs in April. Fake! He was still Yuniesky Betancourt and has hit .189/.215/.287 from May 8 on -- that's 284 PAs. Once it became obvious that April was a fluke, why keep him around all season?
6. Royals count on Jeff Francoeur for more than clubhouse leadership. The Royals believed so much in Francoeur that they traded super prospect Wil Myers to keep Francoeur in right field. Even though Francoeur hit .235/.287/.378 in 2012 and was worth minus-2.3 WAR. As in, way below replacement level. Francoeur played 59 games, struck out 49 times, drew eight walks, hit .208 and was mercifully released on July 5. There also was the Chris Getz problem at second. Or Ned Yost batting Alcides Escobar second for nearly 300 at-bats despite a .274 OBP. Or that Carlos Pena pinch-hit appearance ... if you get the idea that Yost had a bad year, well ...
5. Royals give Wade Davis 24 starts. Part of the controversial Myers-James Shields trade, Davis had pitched very well for Tampa Bay out of the bullpen in 2012, but the Royals decided to return Davis to the rotation, where he had mediocre results in 2010 and 2011 (4.27 ERA). Giving Davis a chance to start wasn't the worst idea, although he wasn't that great as a starter in Tampa considering the Rays' great defense and a pitcher's park. He was better in relief because his fastball ticked up in shorter outings. The big problem here was Yost kept running Davis out there despite a 5.67 ERA and .320 batting average allowed. The Royals have allowed the fewest runs in the AL, but what if Bruce Chen had joined the rotation before mid-July?
4. Mariners think it's a good idea to play Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez in the outfield. Together. OK, we'll be a little fair to GM Jack Zduriencik, who did reportedly acquire Justin Upton, only to see Upton veto the trade. He also pursued Hamilton. So Morse was kind of a Plan C or Plan D, the hope being his bat would make up for his lousy defense. Nope. Morse's defense was predictably awful, plus he didn't hit. When Franklin Gutierrez spent the year raising sheep in Australia instead of playing center field, that forced the Mariners to use Ibanez regularly in left field, giving them two of the worst (the worst?) corner defenders in the majors.
3. Giants stand pat with Barry Zito. OK, he beat Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series, which pretty much justified that $126 million contract all by itself. While it was understandable to open the season with Zito in the rotation -- he was at least serviceable last season before his clutch postseason performances -- you couldn't assume Zito would roll 30 starts again. Zito went 5-11 with a 5.75 ERA as the Giants gave him 25 starts. But that ERA comes courtesy of help from pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Zito went a stunning 0-9 on the road with a 9.56 ERA and .401 average allowed. Basically, on the road, the average hitter against Zito was Ted Williams.
2. Angels sign Joe Blanton. Considering Blanton had a 4.79 ERA in the National League over the three previous seasons, the odds that he would perform better moving over to the American League seemed slim. There may have been some belief that Blanton's fly-ball tendencies would work in Anaheim. Wishful thinking. He went 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA. Meanwhile, the Angels let Ervin Santana go, and he had a great year for the Royals.
1. The Phillies go Young. Let's see. Delmon Young and Michael Young were worth a combined minus-2.8 WAR in 2012, with the Defensive Runs Saved statistic suggesting both were lousy defenders. Ruben Amaro flouted advanced metrics and acquired both players. They combined for minus-2.3 WAR while with the Phillies. On a perhaps related note, the Phillies have allowed the second-most runs in the NL.
It was just the second time in 30 years that a team hit back-to-back home runs with two outs in the ninth to win a game (Nick Green and J.D. Drew did it for the Braves in 2004). That it came off Kimbrel, regarded as the game's best closer, was all the more shocking.
First, Devin Mesoraco, pinch-hitting, lined a 3-2 low fastball just over the fence in right-center to tie it and then Shin-Soo Choo hit his second homer of the game, off another low fastball, for the improbable walk-off.
We all remember how dominant Kimbrel was last season. Not only did he strike out over half the batters he faced, he allowed just four extra-base hits -- three home runs and a double. He's now allowed three home runs and two doubles in 2013 in just 13.1 innings and has blown three save chances -- and the Braves lost all three games. You can point to his still-great strikeout totals (21) but the bottom line is Kimbrel has not done the job. That's three losses for the Braves in games they led entering the ninth inning, after losing just one such game a year ago.
In 2012, the 30 teams combined to lose just 111 such games --3.7 per team. So unless Kimbrel is perfect the rest of the way, the Braves' ability to protect ninth-inning leads will likely be worse than the average major league team.
Making Kimbrel just another overrated closer.
Other quick thoughts:
- Adam Rubin has the story on Harvey's dominant performance against the White Sox -- he allowed only Alex Rios' infield single, a play Ruben Tejada could have made if he'd played it a little more aggressively. Batters are hitting .133 off Harvey so far. He joins a list of notable no-decisions in recent years, a great list dug up by ESPN Stats & Info: Randy Johnson (May 8, 2001, 9 IP, 3 H, 20 SO); Kevin Millwood (Aug. 28, 1999, 10 IP, 2 H, 9 SO); Francisco Cordova (July 12, 1997, 9 IP, 0 H, 10 SO). Cordova and teammate Ricardo Rincon ended up combining for a 10-inning no-hitter that day for the Pirates.
- Paul Goldschmidt hit a two-run homer off Brandon League in the ninth to give the Diamondbacks a 7-5 win over the terrible Dodgers, but check out these two plays from Didi Gregorius. I wonder if he makes that play on Rios ...
- Not to be outdone, check out these two plays from Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons.
- Adrian Beltre, however, had the play of the night to rob Yuniesky Betancourt. The Brewers beat the Rangers anyway as they scored five in the first inning -- including Betancourt's eighth home run.
- Look, Pablo Sandoval is fat. I'm about 99.7 percent sure if that if he lost 10 or 50 pounds that he'd be a better player. But, hey, he is who he is and right now the Giants don't care if can't tuck in his jersey as long as he keeps hitting like this. He crushed an 0-1 fastball from J.J. Putz for a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Giants a dramatic 2-1 win over the Diamondbacks. He's 11-for-18 in his past four games, but the best thing about his home run: He sort of called it. Andrew Baggarly of CSN tweeted, "Sandoval told Pence on his way to the plate that he was 'gonna click one.' So he called his shot? 'Pretty much.'" For Putz, that's already four blown saves (although the D-backs managed to win the first three of those games) and you wonder if Kirk Gibson will consider moving David Hernandez or even Heath Bell into the role.
- Watched a lot of the Rays-Royals game to see James Shields battle against his old pals. Alex Cobb was dominant through five innings, leading 2-0 and going to two balls on just two hitters. The Royals broadcast showed a cool split screen showing the similar deliveries of Shields and Cobb; Shields has that little Tiant-esque twist and Cobb has maybe a little more deliberation, but the two are very similar. Cobb even credits Shields with showing him the spike curveball that he now uses with his fastball/changeup combo. Suddenly with two outs and nobody on in the sixth, the Royals got to Cobb with an Eric Hosmer double, Lorenzo Cain single, Mike Moustakas home run to right (his first of the year), Jeff Francoeur double and Salvador Perez single. Meanwhile, Shields served up a two-run homer to Matt Joyce in the first, but settled down and delivered another quality start. He's only 2-2 as the Royals have struggled to score runs, but he has a 3.00 ERA and 39/10 SO/BB ratio. He's been everything the Royals wanted.[+] EnlargeRick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsPablo Sandoval's two-run home run in the ninth gave the Giants a win over the Diamondbacks.
- The reports of Roy Halladay's demise may have been exaggerated, but the reports of his return may also have been a bit premature. The Indians tagged him for three home runs, nine hits and eight runs in 3.2 innings. Cleveland then added four more off the Philly bullpen -- with Ryan Raburn hitting two for the second game in a row -- in a 14-2 win. The Indians have scored 33 runs in their past three games. Oh, Carlos Santana is good: .389/.476/.722. I'll have to check in on the Indians one of these nights.
- Ian Kinsler is quietly having a great season for the Rangers -- two more hits in a 10-6 win over the White Sox to raise his line to .317/.395/.525, along with outstanding defense at second.
- Fun back-and-forth game in Toronto as the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox 9-7 after David Ortiz had given Boston a 7-6 lead with a three-run double in the seventh. Big win to snap a four-game skid. Edwin Encarnacion hit two home runs, including the go-ahead two-run shot off the very tough Junichi Tazawa, and this ginormous shot off Jon Lester into the fourth deck, just the 14th player to hit one there. Melky Cabrera continues to struggle but Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are starting to heat up. Still, as Dan Szymborski wrote, the Jays' slow start has hurt their playoff odds big time.
- Yuniesky Betancourt, you are awesome.
- This happened at Dodger Stadium tonight.
Considering the importance of winning the division and avoiding the ridiculous wild-card play-in game, the last thing the Braves wanted to do was dig a hole and try to catch the Nats from behind. Atlanta's 16-9 start -- which includes a 3-2 win over Washington on Monday when No. 5 starter Julio Teheran faced off against Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg -- is even more impressive when you consider everything that has gone wrong for the Braves so far:
- Six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann hasn't played a game.
- First baseman Freddie Freeman missed 14 games.
- Jason Heyward is hitting .121 and is currently on the DL after an appendectomy.
- B.J. Upton is .146.
- Dan Uggla is hitting .177.
- Teheran scuffled through 5.1 innings on Monday but allowed just two runs -- lowering his ERA to 5.08.
Most importantly, the Braves are now 4-0 against the Nationals, which means the Braves earn an A as I hand out my grades for April in the National League. Justin Upton earns an A+ for his monster month -- only four players have hit more home runs in April (Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols share the April record with 14) and only Bob Horner (14 in July 1980), Andruw Jones (13 in June 2005) and Ozzie Virgil (13 in May 1987) have hit more in a calendar month in Atlanta Braves history.
The Nationals, meanwhile, earn a C- for a lackluster 13-13 start -- they're 5-1 against the Marlins and 8-12 against the other major league opponents on their schedule. The Nationals also reported that Strasburg experienced forearm tightness during Monday's game and will be examined on Tuesday. Strasburg walked four while allowing just two runs in six innings against the Braves, but he hasn't been the Strasburg of 2012, or at least the Strasburg of the first three months of 2012. His strikeout rate is down, left-handed hitters have a .391 OBP against him and his ERA is 3.13, ranking just 26th in the NL. Strasburg earns a C, but teammate Bryce Harper earns an A+.
Some other NL grades for April:
Pirates bullpen: A. A key to Pittsburgh's lead in the NL Central has been a pen that has gone 6-2 with a 2.59 while pitching the second-most innings in the majors and allowing a .202 average, second behind Kansas City's .201 mark. Closer Jason Grilli has gone 10-for-10 in saves and has allowed one run in 11 innings.
Matt Harvey, Mets: A. I'd give him an A+, but he actually allowed a run against the Marlins on Monday. Harvey is 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA and has held opponents to a .153 average. He did throw 121 pitches in just 5.1 innings against the Marlins, but more than anything that serves to show that Harvey has room to get even better. Which is a scary idea if you're a National League hitter.
Marlins: D-. Last in the majors in batting average, home runs, slugging percentage, OPS and ownership.
Mat Latos and Homer Bailey, Reds: A. It seems like there's a perception that the Reds are an explosive offensive team, but that wasn't the case last year (ninth in the NL in runs scored despite playing in a hitter's park) and while the Reds are second in the NL in runs scored in 2013, they also rank ninth in slugging percentage. The Reds rotation, however, was terrific last year and has been terrific again, second to the Cardinals with a 2.97 ERA. Latos and Bailey remain two of the more underrated starters in the NL. Latos threw six shutout innings against the Cardinals on Monday, picking up his second win and lowering his ERA to 1.83. Bailey is 1-2 thanks to poor run support but has a 2.81 ERA. The two have combined for 69 strikeouts and just 17 walks, and when Johnny Cueto returns from the DL, he might give the Reds the best starting pitching trio in the league.
Cardinals bullpen: F. St. Louis starters are 14-6 with a 2.20 ERA. St. Louis relievers are 0-5 with a 5.89 ERA and .301 average allowed.
Pablo Sandoval's waistline: F.
Pablo Sandoval's bat: B.
The decision by the Brewers to sign Yuniesky Betancourt: D-. I mean, really ... Yuni was going to help the Brewers?
Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. Don't you love baseball?
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: A. He's back, he's hitting, he's fielding and the Rockies are in first place. The Rockies have to hope that the strained shoulder Tulo suffered on Sunday isn’t serious (he sat Monday’s game, but there are no plans for a trip to the DL).
Matt Kemp, Dodgers: D-. Heading into Monday's games, FanGraphs rated Kemp 33rd among 36 full-time NL outfielders in WAR -- ahead of only Juan Pierre, Jon Jay and Ben Revere.
Starlin Castro, Cubs: C. I have to remind myself he's still just 23, but Castro is in his fourth season and just hasn't that much with the bat. He's hitting .271 with two home runs, but his approach -- just three walks -- is still limiting his upside. A hitter with an OBP under .300 just isn't that valuable.
Weather in Colorado: F. Please, baseball, don't play games when the weather is below freezing.
But there's one thing spring isn't giving us a lot of: knockdown, drag-out camp battles.
It wasn't even the last day of February and Mariners skipper Eric Wedge had let the world know that Mike Carp was his left fielder, not even bothering with the benefit of any actual spring ballgames. Not that this would have been the stuff of a January news release, but if you thought Michael Saunders or Trayvon Robinson had a chance, guess again.
Or consider the Kansas City Royals, winners of 71 games last season. In the broadest of broad brushstrokes, that might seem like the sort of team you'd expect camp fights and people playing for their professional lives. Rookies from last year, such us second baseman Johnny Giavotella and third baseman Mike Moustakas, might have given you reason for concern, between Giavotella's .273 OBP and Moustakas' .676 OPS. And with veteran regulars such as Yuniesky Betancourt and Kevin Kouzmanoff in camp, you might think there are camp battles between kids and vets to be won.
Far from it. As Royals GM Dayton Moore placidly noted, Betancourt could become the Royals' starting second baseman but, “I don't think it'll be on Opening Day. Giavotella would really have to struggle.” That doesn't even sound like a camp skirmish, let alone a fight.
Look around camps and you'll see a lot of that kind of commentary and a lot of that kind of planning. There just aren't that many slots beyond those areas in which financial commitments to veterans or organizational commitments to prospects don't already determine the overwhelmingly likely outcomes.
And that's really as it should be, because teams don't want to come into camps looking to resolve a large number of unknowns. Instead, what we're seeing play out in camps is based on a couple solid management techniques.
Contingency Planning. Moore's comment about Betancourt is important, not because it reflects any resignation, but because it reflects the mindset of what goes into team-building. Giavotella isn't in any danger of losing his job to Betancourt, any more than Moustakas is to Kouzmanoff -- unless they flat-out fail.
Can that happen? Of course, but the initiative is in the hands of the players to deliver on the opportunities they get. If Moustakas builds on his September breakout, nobody needs to remember that Kouzmanoff was in camp. Giavotella could build on the blend of patience and pop he's shown the organization in his four years in the minors and hold down the keystone for the Royals for years. But appreciation of his ability was built up in those years of development and scouting, which brings us to the next key to the decline of the camp battle ...
Sample size matters. Everyone gets that when you're talking about spring stats, none of it means that much. People just don't get that much playing time to say anything conclusively about their ability, and three good weeks in March don't outweigh what a player's done in his previous three years.
That isn't to say performance is meaningless, just very nearly so. When you're talking about a pitcher showing off a new cut fastball or a batter making better adjustments, those things may well be true, but there isn't enough opportunity in spring training to show that new skill off, at least not statistically. Players and scouts, coaches, managers and executives might see it, might know about it or might give credit where credit's due, but spring games don't generate that much opportunity for a player to show it off.
Perhaps paradoxically, the one place where sample size or past history plays less of a role can be the back end of a bullpen. Look at almost any reliever long enough and you can come up with ways he might help a team. If a previously nondescript reliever shows his team something in camp, maybe he sticks because he's caught his manager's fancy; if he then has a bad April, he'll get shipped out on just as little information to make way for the latest hot hand.
Times have changed. A lot of this has to do with how players get treated by their organizations, because in today's media environment you just don't get all that much red meat. In the days of a Casey Stengel or Billy Martin or Earl Weaver, maybe managers could indulge in a bit of public psychodrama over their players' job security. These days, not so much.
Now, all of this isn't to say that camp battles for regular jobs are extinct -- far from it. The Rays and Rockies are on opposite ends of the kind of exciting fights for rotation jobs that could go in any direction, with the Rays picking from among a front six that could start for anybody while the Rockies try to find five plausible big league starters from among at least 10 candidates. The Red Sox have a shortstop situation to sort out -- at least until they decide if the gloveliness of Jose Iglesias is their brand of coffee. The A's have corner-job pecking orders to sort out, with both infield corners wide open. The Angels will have to find a way to squeeze all those outfield bats into very few jobs.
Those are all going to be fun to watch play out to their bitter conclusions. But most of what you'll see from spring training's final cutdowns is going to involve the more everyday kinds of discretionary selections that teams will start undoing just a few short weeks into the season: Picking the last man or two in the bullpen, or maybe determining the identity of a fifth starter for at least the first half-dozen turns through the rotation.
So as much joy attends spring training and spring ballgames, most of the big questions any team has were already answered by their actions in December or January. It's April that we'll start to get the answers that really mean something.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
- Chip Buck asks: Where should Jacoby Ellsbury hit in the Red Sox lineup?
- Jon Shields on Felix Hernandez, who has lost weight (check the photo in Jon's post), talked about staying in Seattle, and said his slider "went on vacation" last year.
- Game 162 of 2011 is history, but Chris Glover looks through the lens of that game for the Tampa Bay Rays and what it means for 2012.
- Craig Brown has a response to Royals manager Ned Yost saying Yuniesky Betancourt will start three or four times per week. Royals fans suddenly aren't enjoying spring training quite as much.
- The Pirates have locked up Andrew McCutchen long-term. Should the Braves do the same thing with Jason Heyward?
- Susan Petrone looks at the spring training histories of Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson, who both got beat up in their first spring outings.
- Will this be a breakout season for Yovani Gallardo?
- Brandon Belt says he wants to be more aggressive. Chris Quick takes a closer look.
- Will Chris Davis ever become a quality major leaguer? There's no denying the power, but the strikeouts and defense have prevented him from holding a full-time job. He turns 26 in March, so this may be his last chance to earn a starting job. Jon Shepherd has an interesting comparison for Davis: Eric Karros, a guy who struggled at the start of his career but ended up with some quality seasons.
- View from the Bleachers is doing season player previews. Here Chet West's take on Carlos Marmol, the Jekyll and Hyde of closers.
- Considering Scott Rolen's injury history, the Reds may have to rely on Juan Francisco to play third base at some point this season. But is he in Dusty Baker's doghouse?
- Hudson Belinsky has a look at how Chris Iannetta has hit away from Coors Field and how he changes his approach.
- Finally, make sure you vote in the Value Over Replacement Grit's March Moniker Madness tournament to determine the best name in baseball history.
Consider which players are on the market at short beyond Reyes: Jimmy Rollins, Rafael Furcal and... and a collection of people you sign with a sense of necessity, if not outright regret. Clint Barmes. Ronny Cedeno. Even Cesar Izturis. It’s the sort of market that might make even Nick Punto or Jack Wilson start to look good, even for guaranteed money.
Then consider which teams have postseason ambitions for 2012, and who also need a shortstop -- and their chance for Reyes already gone. Start with the world champion Cardinals sans Furcal, the Phillies sans Rollins, the Braves, the Brewers and the Giants. They’re all more likely to spend on a shortstop than the back-of-the-pack teams needing to find a shortstop, like the Astros and Pirates.
And that’s the problem in a nutshell at shortstop: There aren’t all that many somebodies capable of playing a good short and contributing on offense to go around. If Reyes settles early, the subsequent scramble could be the most interesting development of the winter. At the very least, the bidding on Rollins could go nuts, especially those teams that don’t have a shortstop prospect worthy of the name in their very near future. The Phillies have their hopes for Freddy Galvis, the Braves their own for Tyler Pastornicky; both clubs are probably the willing “losers” on this winter’s shortstop market, gunning for veteran shortstops they can sign for a year to keep the seat warm.
But that kind of consideration aside, this is one line you don’t want to be fourth in. The expectation the Pirates will pay Barmes eight figures over two years illustrates the downside. Even if you like Barmes’ defense, he’ll struggle to achieve a .300 OBP -- he’s at .302 career, 10 points better than Yuniesky Betancourt, 11 better than Alex Gonzalez.
As a result, the chance is obviously there for teams with some depth at short to make a trade. The Red Sox have their surplus with Marco Scutaro, Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles all marking time while Jose Iglesias approaches the majors. There’s some speculation the Nats could swap Ian Desmond, which might involve pushing Danny Espinosa across the bag to short to make room for Stephen Lombardozzi at second. (That sort of creative expansion of shortstop alternatives helps explain why the Twins struck early to add Jamey Carroll, despite questions about his defense.) Given the potential payoff in prospects if the Padres are willing to deal, Josh Byrnes may well decide to peddle Jason Bartlett’s remaining season under contract -- for $5.5 million, or what now might be referred to as Clint Barmes money -- to a contender.
Indeed, the market's so weak and the contrast between the big three of Reyes, Rollins and Rafael Furcal versus all of the alternatives so significant, that you can understand why a team that doesn't get its top target this winter might decide to change gears and chase one of the shortstops. Take the Cardinals' situation. If they can't convince Albert Pujols to stick around, they shouldn't throw the money at another first baseman -- they have Lance Berkman already available to move to first, creating an opening for Allen Craig. They'd still be short at shortstop, though, which might drive GM John Mozeliak's top priority to be going after Rollins or retaining Furcal.
For those teams that don’t get Reyes or Rollins or Furcal, they can still potentially win with the other guys. The D’backs made it into the postseason with Willie Bloomquist doing his gosh-darned best bit of David Eckstein impersonation at short, and the Brewers treated people to the spectacle of being the first and probably last team to reach a League Championship Series with Betancourt as its everyday shortstop. And the Cardinals got by with Ryan Theriot at short for a significant portion of the season -- before taking off down the stretch for, among other reasons, replacing him with Furcal.
But with Furcal starting the Cardinals went 29-18. It’s that sort of immediate pick-me-up that will help inspire GMs to try and avoid finishing fourth in this particular race, because the difference between the shortstops you want to pay to play, and the ones you employ because you have to is so stark.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Something just doesn't seem right when you see Yuniesky Betancourt going into beast mode.
You expect it from Ryan Braun, and he's as hot as any postseason hitter we've seen in a long time. He added two more extra-base hits and four RBIs on Sunday.
You expect it from Prince Fielder, who delivered a missile of a home run that rocketed off the wall behind the bullpen in right-center, a two-run blast that gave the Brewers a 6-5 lead in the fifth inning.
But when Betancourt is doing serious damage, you know things are going the Brewers' way. And there he was, blasting a two-run homer to cap off Milwaukee's six-run fifth, then doubling and scoring for the team's final run in a 9-6 Game 1 victory over the Cardinals.
Betancourt, of course, has been one of the most-maligned players in the major leagues in recent years. He's a free swinger with a ghastly on-base percentage of .277 over the past three seasons. His range at shortstop has been compared to such inanimate objects as fire hydrants and tree stumps. When the Brewers acquired Zack Greinke in the offseason, it came with the caveat, "Yes, but they had to take Yuniesky Betancourt in the trade."
No, Betancourt is not an All-Star. But the defensive metrics suggest he played a little better in the field this season, and although he still swings at everything, he has a little pop for a shortstop, with 13 home runs and 43 extra-base hits. Make a mistake, and once in a while, he'll do some damage.
It usually doesn't happen with two strikes, however. In 2011, when falling behind in the count 0-and-2, Betancourt hit .170 with two home runs in 94 at-bats. With two strikes on him, he hit .157 with three home runs in 198 at-bats. Because of his inability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone, he's an easy out with two strikes.
But not every time.
After Braun's two-run double and Fielder's home run off Jaime Garcia knocked Garcia from the game, Rickie Weeks reached on Octavio Dotel's throwing error. Dotel got two strikes on Betancourt, who took a ball, then fouled off four pitches. Good at-bat, as they say. Then Dotel hung a curveball, and Betancourt lashed it over the fence in left-center. Great at-bat. In the postgame news conference, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke called it one of Betancourt's best at-bats of the season.
In the seventh, Betancourt again fell behind two strikes, this time to Kyle McClellan, who couldn't put him away, either. Betancourt fouled off two pitches, worked the count to 3-2, then lashed a fastball down the left-field line for a double.
Yuniesky Betancourt working the count? Yes, it must be the postseason.
* * * *
1. Braun went with 2-for-4 with a mammoth, 444-foot, two-run homer in the first and a two-run ground-rule double into the right-field corner in the fifth. I don't know how you get him out right now. In the postseason, he's 11-for-22 with five doubles, two home runs and four walks. When he came up against Garcia with runners on second and third in the fifth and the Cardinals leading 5-2, there were some calls to put him on base and have Garcia pitch to Fielder. But you can't put the tying on base there, and it's too early to start matching up hitters, so I don't fault Tony La Russa for having the lefty Garcia pitch to Braun. The play also highlighted one of the Cardinals' major weaknesses, Lance Berkman's range in the outfield. A swifter outfielder might have run down Braun's drive.
2. Braun's homer was the first Garcia had allowed in the first inning this season -- and the first he'd allowed since his first major league start in 2008.
3. The Brewers' home-field advantage is certainly starting to resemble that of the 1987 and 1991 Minnesota Twins, who won two World Series while playing in the deafening Metrodome. Those two years, the Twins went 11-1 at home in the playoffs, including 8-0 in the World Series, and 5-7 on the road.
4. Losing Skip Schumacher's lefty bat for the series is a minor blow to the Cardinals, with the Brewers' righty-heavy rotation and bullpen. Ryan Theriot played second and went 0-for-4. He's a .310 hitter this season versus left-handers but .256 against right-handers.
5. The Brewers are now 17-0 at home in games started by Greinke, although he had his second consecutive mediocre outing with eight hits and six runs allowed over six-plus innings. As John Smoltz and Ron Darling mentioned on the TBS telecast, it seemed he was throwing too many slow curveballs early in the count rather than using that as a two-strike sit-'em-down pitch. David Freese's three-run homer in the fourth was off a first-pitch curveball, and Berkman's RBI single in the fifth also came off a first-pitch curve. Greinke became the first pitcher in postseason history to pitch at least six innings with an ERA of at least 9.00 and still win the game.
6. The Cardinals will be happy getting a split in Milwaukee and going home with the series tied and Chris Carpenter ready for Game 3. That puts the pressure on Game 2 starter Edwin Jackson. All he has to do is figure out a way to pitch to Braun, Fielder ... and Betancourt.
1. How good is Chris Heisey and should Dusty Baker be playing him every day? Plus, the moves the Reds should be looking to make.
2. Shaun Marcum leaves another start early... and other issues with the Brewers.
3. Is Bryce Harper's strikeout a problem?
4. Are the Orioles underachieving? Some talk about the O's and the disappointing years from Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis.
5. Should the Mariners be careful with how many innings they give Michael Pineda?
Plus: Emails, Ricky Romero, College World Series talk and more! Check it all our podcasts at the Baseball Today podcast page.
A snippet, though:
- Unfortunately for the Royals, last year [Mariners GM Bill] Bavasi was fired -- and remember, this was the same genius who, before the axe fell, cited the departure of Jose Guillen as one of his biggest regrets -- and the Mariners hired the talented Jack Zduriencik as their new GM. Zduriencik had been the scouting director for the Milwaukee Brewers, but unlike certain scout-oriented GMs he quickly proved that he was not intimidated by statistical analysis. He created a Department of Statistical Research and hired his former assistant Tony Blengino to run it. The Mariners also hired the brilliant Tom Tango as a consultant.
This winter, the Mariners and Royals were both looking for first basemen. The Mariners decided to gamble on a player who, despite a .485 career slugging average and being a perennial stathead favorite, had never batted even 450 times in a season and had gone over 300 plate appearances just twice. They signed Russ Branyan to a $1.4 million contract, and Branyan currently is hitting .284/.383/.575 and ranks second in the league with 21 homers despite playing in one of the AL's best pitchers' parks. The Royals, despite having one of the best first base prospects in baseball in Kila Ka'aihue, instead sacrificed a quality reliever in Leo Nunez for the opportunity to pay Mike Jacobs over $3 million. Jacobs had a career .498 slugging average, but his plate discipline was terrible and he was coming off his best season at age 27 – a strong statistical sign that he was likely to fall back. You may recall that the stats community hated the trade. He's hitting .218/.294/.401.
Which is how we got where we are: the Royals are, once again, the most ridiculous franchise in the American League. And a hearty congratulations to everyone who made it happen.
(For more on the disconnect between Dayton Moore and the current state of baseball analysis, there's Pos-o'-plenty here and especially here. Oh, and now there's this; at least Moore admits that he doesn't know, and doesn't care. More kudos to all involved.)
- The Royals pulled off a major trade today when they acquired shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt from the Seattle Mariners for two minor-league pitchers.
Betancourt, 27, has been a disappointment this season for the Mariners with his batting average tumbling to .250 and producing just two homers and 22 RBIs in 63 games. He is a .279 career hitter ...
In exchange, the Royals surrendered Danny Cortes and Derrick Saito.
Cortes, 22, was the organization's minor-league pitcher of the year in 2008 but is just 6-6 with a 3.92 ERA this season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. He joined the Royals in the 2006 trade that sent reliever Mike MacDougal to the White Sox.
2. Betancourt's career batting average is irrelevant. What's relevant is his .302 career on-base percentage.
3. Betancourt does not reach base with any frequency, nor does he reach ground balls with any frequency; according to Ultimate Zone Rating, Betancourt's been the worst shortstop in the majors this season. By a lot.
As bad as the Royals' shortstops have been, hitting-wise, Betancourt will give most of those runs back with his lousy range. Still, you could almost justify a deal like this if the Royals were trying to make a short-term improvement in the chase for a short-term reward. But that's not what is happening here. The Royals are already finished this year, and Betancourt is signed through 2012. It's apparent that the Royals -- and more specifically, Dayton Moore -- see Betancourt playing a significant role in the franchise's future.
Which should be enough to scare the socks off any living Royals fan.
This franchise's single biggest problem has, for many years, been lousy on-base percentages. Last winter, one of Dayton Moore's big moves was the acquisition of Mike Jacobs, who entered this season with a .318 career on-base percentage and has somehow managed to lower that by a few points. Now they've committed to who-knows-how-many years of a shortstop with a .302 on-base percentage who can't play defense.
The Royals' last two general managers have talked a great deal about on-base percentage. What they actually do, though, is things like give up a couple of prospects for Yuniesky Betancourt.
Lately, the Royals seem close to losing Rany Jazayerli and Joe Posnanski. They lost me a long time ago, and it's because of brain-dead moves exactly like this one.Update: As R.J. Anderson notes, even after this deal the Royals still desperately need a shortstop.
- What must Betancourt do to get back in the lineup?
"He has to show he's prepared to play," [manager Don] Wakamatsu said.
Betancourt, who has had meetings with his manager and coaches all season, insists he's doing nothing different now than ever.
"I've been doing the same routine for years," Betancourt said. "I can't control the lineup. I'm doing whatever I've done in the past."
That, of course, may well be the issue. Betancourt has never been a hard worker, and the past four days have not served him well.
Since being out of the lineup, his teammates say, Betancourt has not taken a single ground ball.
And Monday, when 12 position players showed up for early batting practice, Betancourt was not among them.
"I was asleep on the plane when they announced that," Betancourt said.
Clearly, this management group -- from general manager Jack Zduriencik to Wakamatsu and his coaches -- have had enough of half-assed workouts and a failure to adjust.
The simple truth is, Betancourt has minor league options left, and one plan is to send him down and tell him he won't be back until he shows his work ethic has changed.
"You can't play a guy who doesn't work hard on a team where everyone else busts their ass," one Mariner said. "I don't know why this never happened before, but no one in this clubhouse has any doubts about why it's happened now."
Well, no one but Yuni.
And if he does that and plays reasonably well in the field, he's good enough to play.
Last year, Betancourt played poorly in the field.
This year, he's been worse.
It's one thing to have a guy who's not playing well, but a rebuilding organization simply can't tolerate a subpar player who can't be bothered to improve himself. Or at least try.*
* By the way, does anyone else find it strange that an infielder can choose whether to practice fielding ground balls? Isn't that part of the job anymore? Have we really reached the point where a manager can't simply tell someone to work? And all this time, I've been thinking that all the talk about players not taking infield these days was just a bunch of hooey ...
I can think of only two reasons for not just releasing Betancourt right now.
One, he's only 27 and theoretically is just now peaking. And two, they still owe him roughly $10 million on a contract that runs through 2011 (with an option for 2012, hey-o).
But that $10 million is a sunk cost that can easily be blamed on the fired general manager, and Betancourt's from Cuba so we have to regard his listed age as a vague approximation, right?
I suspect that we've seen his best already, and that was two years ago. It's time to move on, and the M's might as well just rip off the bandage quickly.
Betancourt did draw a walk in Game No. 26 -- for both him and the M's -- and somehow he drew another one three days later. But on May 13 he sported a .259/.269/.336 line, and the Mariners benched him. From Larry Stone's story:
- Betancourt and Wakamatsu had a long heart-to-heart talk before the game. Wakamatsu said they've talked about these issues before, but never to the depth they did this time.
"The biggest thing is, is he playing to his potential?" Wakamatsu said. "When you go through a stretch that we've gone through, it's not so much singling him out. But obviously, to move forward where we want to go, he's got to raise his level of game both offensively and defensively."
Wakamatsu noted that Betancourt had played in the first 33 games, and started 31. Betancourt is hitting .259 and has committed four errors.
"As a manager, you can say, 'We've given you opportunities to make adjustments in what we've talked about since spring training.' The rest is up to him," he said. "But Yuni will be back out there."
In those 15 games, Betancourt's batting average has dropped three points ... but his on-base percentage has picked up 17 points, thanks to an amazing six walks. You don't think six walks is amazing? Prior to this season, Betancourt had drawn six (or more) walks in a month (let alone a half-month) just twice in his career; he drew seven walks in September '05 -- his first full month in the majors -- and he drew six last August.
Through it all, the Mariners just kept running him out there, month after month after month. I suspect that other managers talked about adjustments, too. In Betancourt's first full season (2006), he drew 17 walks in 157 games. In his second season, he drew 15 walks in 155 games. In his third season, he drew 17 walks in 153 games. Notice a pattern here? Betancourt was avoiding walks like a bad case of the flu, but the Mariners kept playing him. So why change?
It's not that Betancourt has the talent to maintain his batting average and draw 50 walks every season. I doubt if he does. But it seems to me that you can draw 17 walks per season only if you don't want to draw any walks at all. When it comes to intent, 17 might as well be zero. In the majors, anyway. I believe that a player who can hit .280-.300 has the pitch recognition and the hand-eye coordination to draw at least 30 walks per season. And Betancourt might actually do that, now that he knows his job may depend on it.
Unfortunately, simple desire may not be enough to raise the level of his defensive game, which simply isn't good enough to support his offensive game. Even with the new-found plate discipline.
• From our story about Bob Melvin's demise:
- Melvin made an immediate impact in the desert. He led the 2005 Diamondbacks to a 77-85 record, a 26-win improvement.
Two years later, the Diamondbacks made a surprise run to the NL West title despite scoring 20 fewer runs than they allowed -- a fact that led many to praise Melvin's ability to squeeze the most out of his lineup.
• Worry not, Yuniesky Betancourt fans. Yes, after finally drawing a walk, he'll rarely be seen in this space. But we've still got Bengie Molina, who's now racked up 104 plate appearances this season without a walk ... and like Betancourt (before his walk), Molina's on-base percentage is lower than his batting average!
• From mental_floss's Scott Allen, a list of nine famous baseball stadium vendors. (It's a solid compendium, but where is Fenway Park's Rob, the champion thrower of peanuts?)
• Murray Chass is not a big fan of Selena Roberts' new book. Steven Goldman's not a fan of Roberts' work, generally. I've decided to read the book only if someone pays me or makes me. (So far, so good.)
• Wow, talk about a potential time sink ... every issue of Baseball Digest, searchable!
• Uh-oh ... This is the last Cardboard Gods post for a while. Don't worry, though; it's for a great cause, and Josh will return.
- It's amazing to consider, but some major league regulars are yet to take ball four and their free base. Okay, I lied, it's not "some" as much as "a pair". Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and Giants backstop Bengie Molina have appeared at the plate a collective 100 times entering Wednesday's games, and combined had zero walks. Zero intentional walks, zero hit by pitches, etc.
In fact, Betancourt's career high in walks in a single season is 17, the same number that current walk champion Adam Dunn had entering Wednesday's games. Yeah, he really is that impatient.
Given Betancourt's distaste for the walk, it's no surprise that he's only seen four counts go to three balls, with only one of those being a non-full count. Heck, this isn't even Betancourt's longest dry spell in the past calendar year. Last season, from April 29th until May 28th Betancourt went 103 plate appearances in between walks. Remember, this is a hitter with a career batting average of .283, slugging percentage of .401, and .301 batting average on balls in play. This is not Ichiro Suzuki or Vladimir Guerrero, this is a below average hitter refusing to take a free base. When combined with poor defense, it's easy to see why most Mariner fans would enjoy seeing Ronny Cedeno starting at shortstop.
The problem, as Anderson suggests, is that Betancourt is a bad shortstop, and he seems to be getting progressively worse. According to The Fielding Bible II, Betancourt was eight runs below average in 2007 and 14 runs below in 2008. Betancourt's UZR/150 in those two seasons were -1.4 and -12.7, and this season -- granted, it's only 15 games -- his numbers are off-the-charts horrible.
Would Ronny Cedeno be an upgrade? Cedeno's lifetime OPS+ is off-the-charts horrible: 62. He's been an everyday shortstop in just one season (2006) and didn't exactly distinguish himself with the glove. Is he better defensively than Betancourt? Maybe. Is he better enough to make up for his bat? Probably not.
The Mariners simply don't have a shortstop who won't cost them runs, and wins. If they'd been serious about winning this year, they'd have been smart to sign Orlando Cabrera. But they didn't do that, so now they'll just have to suffer for a while longer (and maybe a lot longer; the M's owe Betancourt $9 million through 2012).