Great Lakes Royals

June 2, 2010 4:47 PM

Yuni Betancourt: Not Terrible, or Not Yet Terrible? I Investigate

If there was ever a time for Dayton Moore to quit while he's ahead and declare a successful trade, this is it.

It's been about 11 months plus a week since Moore dealt RHP Dan Cortes and LHP Derrick Saito to the Mariners to accomplish one of many lifelong goals, which was to acquire Yuniesky Betancourt to be his shortstop.  At the time he bought, the trade was universally panned as idiocy, or at the very least, overpaying.  In reality, the Royals gave up on Cortes as a prospect at least a month before the deal was struck, and Saito is nothing more than a farmhand.  Jack Zdurencik, Mariners GM, had to feel fortunate that someone would take on more than half of Betancourt's remaining salary for the honor of having him play every day, and was willing to give up something project-able in minor league talent.  Zdurencik had to feel like his team won the deal decisively.  Moore, at least, had to feel that the trade was pretty even, as he wasn't giving up much of value.

To date, Moore's assessment of the trade value has been more accurate, but a GM is not in the business of evaluating the fairness of every move he makes, he's in the business trying to build the best team he can, usually at the expense of all other teams.  The Royals owe a net sum to Betancourt of $2MM this season, $3MM next season, plus a $2MM buyout in 2011, according to Cot's.  The Royals can win the trade only if Betancourt provides about $7MM worth of performance over the first 2 and a half seasons of the deal, and if Cortes and Saito fail to make the major leagues.

Projection systems almost universally projected Betancourt to on-base .290 and slug .390, for a .680 OPS.  To date, Betancourt is on pace to set career highs in slugging and on-base percentage with a .418 and .310 mark in those respective categories.  In which case, the projections weren't off by that much.  He's outproducing even the most optimistic projections at the plate, but not unfathomably so.  His .728 OPS and .318 wOBA rank 8th among qualified shortstops.  There are about 6 or so shortstops in baseball who can hit a little bit.  Betancourt is not to be confused with any of those players, but his 2010 season is about as strong offensively as you're going to get from a run of the mill shortstop, and the Royals, honestly, are probably thrilled with a 400 slugging clip from their shortstop.

Where every projection has missed badly so far is with his defense.  Through two months, Betancourts defensive ability at shortstop has been perfectly at league average, with a 0.0 UZR, and he's actually a play or three above average according to John Dewan's plus/minus.  Objectively, he's worked on his defense enough to become an adequate play at shortstop.  Over the last two years as a shortstop in Seattle and even into Kansas City, Yuni was getting to one ball fewer per five games than the average shortstop, and over the course of 150 games at SS, those 30 balls he wasn't converting into outs were adding up.  UZR had him at -11.5, and -16.7 in 2008 and 2009 respectively, and he was getting lazy at times in the field.  Still, Moore, uh, liked his hands.

In 2010, Betancourt is turning balls into outs at a league average rate.  His hands, apparently, have UZR mildly intrigued: they grade out his error runs at +1.3 for a shortstop, which, he probably could be doing even better in if not for constant lapses in concentration.  Yuni's range is still awful, but UZR is thinking (this is a very small sample and subject to change) that an average shortstop wouldn't have gotten to more than one or two of the balls that have been out of Betancourt's range.  And so, what you have is a UZR total that, at it's high water mark, thinks the Royals are doing okay for themselves.

The break-even point in terms of marginal runs for this trade (which probably means little to a non-contender like the Royals, but go with it anyway is about 16 or 17 runs above replacement over the 2 and a half years he's here.  After coming in at -12 last year, according to Fangraphs, Yuni is on pace for +21 runs above replacement in 147 games in 2010.  Even if he falls short of that and finishes at only 16.5 RAR, he will have provided the entire value of his contract to the 2010 Royals, meaning that the team could, in estimation, come out on top of this trade, providing they were correct on Dan Cortes.

The problem is that if Yuni has one +16 season, and one -12 season in his first year and a half as a Royal, that tells us that his marginal value to the club has been slightly positive.  Marginal value is an irrelevant concept for the 2009 and to a lesser extent, the 2010 Royals.  The 2011 Royals, who will have plenty more talent than either of those teams combined, actually have a use for marginal wins in a wide open AL Central.  They probably won't win it, but they'll be at the point where some extreme outlier of marginal wins from it's non-core talent will be the difference between third and first place.

And so, if the Royals are actually to acquire a player in Betancourt who pays dividends, the Royals are either going to have to trade him for something useful, or get a season in 2011 that looks something like this 2010 season.  Betancourt will be 29 in January, and already has a bat that won't play anywhere else besides shortstop.  One of his top comparables for his offense is Angel Berroa, who didn't even make it to age 29 in the Royals system.  Berroa, however, was never really as good as Betancourt (if only by a factor of something like 5% separation), and was a useless player by age 26.  Betancourt, at 28, is having his best season since age 24.  It's reasonable to suggest that there's enough physical talent there to get him through the end of next year at this level, provided that he's not a fluke either offensively or defensively.  However, Yuni's walk rate is down (somehow), his strikeouts are up, and his homers are pretty much in line with his doubles.  His BABIP hasn't been this high since 2006 and 2007, the last time he was an acceptable player.

The Royals didn't receive the Cuban defector who was the minor league defensive sensation, but they've gotten a shortstop who isn't terrible on offense, and isn't playing terrible on defense (still holding my breath), and appears to be able to play up to the value of his ill-conceived contract and not kill his team. 

For about 1,000 more plate appearances, at least, if Betancourt can continue to act like not-such-a-horrible ballplayer, the Royals can play decent baseball without worrying about the lack of shortstop depth in the system as an issue.  If the cost of buying time is $7MM to a player who most thought was foolishly acquired, I mean, I don't know if I would have advocated for him, exactly, but it hasn't been completely wasted money (the Mariners paid his entire 09 salary), especially for a team who has never, ever had any competence at the shortstop position. 

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