The Milwaukee Brewers swung a big offseason trade last winter to bolster a starting rotation they intended to turn into one of the best in the league. The trade brought over Zack Greinke, who had been among the AL's most dominant arms. That was the good part. The trade also brought over Yuniesky Betancourt. That was the bad part.
Betancourt was handed the keys to the starting job at shortstop, but only because there were no other alternatives - Alcides Escobar went to Kansas City in the deal - and instantly he drew consideration as perhaps the worst regular player on a contending team. A shortstop who doesn't play a good short, Betancourt had an aggressive, undisciplined hitting approach and limited power, and the whole package, safe to say, was a bit unsatisfying.
Now, after two and a half months of the 2011 season, much for Milwaukee has gone according to plan. The team is right at the top of the NL Central, feeding off a starting rotation that's strong 1-through-5. Greinke has bounced back from an injury to generate 60 strikeouts and seven walks through eight starts. But just as much of the good has turned out good, some of the bad has turned out bad.
A small handful of players on the Brewers have struggled, but none have struggled more - or more predictably - than Betancourt. As I read Betancourt's Baseball-Reference page, it spits back a slash line of .232/.256/.341. He has 26 strikeouts and eight walks, of which three have been intentional. Worse, he has just three home runs, down from last season's 16. Betancourt has offered nothing, nothing at all, and the team has succeeded despite him.
But it won't be willing to do so forever. Fans have grown exasperated, and the coaching staff, too, must be frustrated, although they haven't laid it so out in the open. The other day, manager Ron Roenicke discussed the possibility of instructing Betancourt to swing at fewer first pitches, since Betancourt's first-pitch swing rate is the highest in baseball. Said Roenicke:
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke knows fans get upset watching shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt constantly swing at the first pitch and make an out.
But you can't tell him to stop doing it, according to Roenicke.
"It doesn't work," said Roenicke. "You ask him to take a pitch and then the next pitch he's going to swing at a lot.
"I think there's time when it's smart for him to go up and take a pitch. You have to have a feel for that stuff. It's hard to just dictate to a hitter what he has to do every time."
Roenicke goes on to say that Betancourt is coachable, but if you read his quotes and take them in, the message you're left with is: he's basically uncoachable. He can't be told to lay off the first pitch more often because he has zero selectivity, and he hasn't learned any in seven years. He has a bad approach that won't get better.
The Brewers have tolerated Betancourt this far because they haven't had alternatives, and because Betancourt slugged .405 last year with the Royals. But it's becoming clear that Betancourt is now a lot more like the guy who slugged .351 the year before, and potential alternatives are beginning to present themselves. Some expensive, and some dirt cheap.
The Mariners, for example, have Jack Wilson hanging out on the bench, behind Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins, Adam Kennedy, and Dustin Ackley. Wilson could probably be had for practically nothing, and while he doesn't swing much of a stick, he's still good in the field. He's still better than Yuniesky Betancourt. The fit is there.
But even if the Brewers don't go for Wilson, they'll be sniffing around for others. They don't even need good. They just need decent, because decent is better than bad, and Yuniesky Betancourt is bad. Yuniesky Betancourt is a difficult player for a contending team to stomach.
The Brewers had to take Betancourt as a condition of their getting Zack Greinke. And once they had him, it was worth giving him some time to show what he can do. But the best thing they can do now is move on. Yuni may not cripple their postseason odds, but he's unlikely to help them.