Indians sign reliever Rafael Betancourt to 2-year deal, avoid arbitration

Updated: January 23, 2008, 6:49 PM ET
Associated Press

CLEVELAND -- Rafael Betancourt emerged from the darkness for Cleveland. Five years later, he's one of the Indians' brightest stars.

Betancourt, one of the AL's top relievers last season, agreed Wednesday to a $5.4 million, two-year contract Wednesday with the Indians, who avoided going to salary arbitration with the right-hander.

An unknown free agent with a surgically repaired shoulder when the Indians signed him in 2003, Betancourt received a multiyear deal that includes a $5 million club option for 2010 and has performance bonuses for games finished.

"This is like a dream come true for me and my family," Betancourt said. "I'll be here for three more years. I told my agent I really wanted to stay here. I just wanted to get it done. I'm excited."

The 32-year-old Betancourt was arguably the majors' best setup man last year.

He went 5-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 68 appearances, mostly in the eighth inning before handing the ball to closer Joe Borowski, who led the AL with 45 saves in his first season for Cleveland.

Betancourt's ERA was the league's second-lowest among relievers and opponents batted just .183 against him.

"I want to do even better," Betancourt said. "I just want to stay healthy and that way I can help the team like I did last year."

It was during spring training in 2003 when the Indians discovered Betancourt. The lights had gone out during a game against Montreal at Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Fla. Not long after power was restored, Betancourt made his first appearance for the Indians.

"I remember when Raffie came into the game," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "All the scouts sitting behind home plate were flipping through the media guide trying to find out who he was."

They know him now.

Betancourt's tedious between-pitch routine, in which he incessantly tugs on his cap and paws at the mound with his cleat, frustrated hitters. He finished the season with 80 strikeouts and just nine walks in 79 1-3 innings and recorded three saves.

Although he may have a closer's stuff, Betancourt is in no hurry to change roles.

"I like where I'm at right now," he said. "I love pitching in those situations."

Betancourt spent three years as an infielder in Boston's minor league system before he was converted to a reliever in 1997. He spent one season playing in Japan's minor leagues and missed all of 2002 with a shoulder injury.

The following year he playing winter ball when the Indians decided to give him a tryout.

Now, he's a staple of their bullpen.

"This is a great story," Shapiro said. "Knowing where Raffie came from, the ups downs of his career, for him to get a multiyear deal is great. And for us to get the stability and consistency at the back end of the bullpen, it's just great story."

Betancourt was still two years away from free agency, and last week his agent exchanged salary figures with the Indians in anticipation of an arbitration hearing. Betancourt filed for $2.5 million, while the Indians offered $1.75 million. He made $840,000 last year.

The Indians also exchanged figures with third baseman Casey Blake, who is seeking $6.9 million. Cleveland offered $5.4 million to the versatile 34-year-old, who made $3.75 million last year.

Shapiro said the club has had "constructive" talks with Blake's representatives.

The club hasn't gone to arbitration with a player since 1991.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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