Enjoying the unlikely (and likely short-lived) ascension of Yuniesky Betancourt
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As a result of the Brewers’ intention to make a 23-year-old with only 45 major league games beneath his belt its everyday starting shortstop, and to ease the burden left by two lengthy injuries sustained by first basemen, the team’s front office signed a veteran free agent infielder with a franchise history to fill in at first and mentor Jean Segura in his first full season. But enough about Alex Gonzalez.
Within a week of the start of the regular season, GM Doug Melvin risked unleashing a tsunami of exaggerated eye rolls and disappointed gasps from Brewers fans by bringing back another former Milwaukee middle infielder. After opting out of his minor league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies (who informed him he wouldn’t make the opening day roster), Yuniesky Betancourt was signed to an affordable major-league contract by his former employer.
In 2011, his lone season in Milwaukee, Yuni B.—a white elephant gift thrown into the Zack Greinke trade package—was a lightning rod for criticism on account of his lack of defensive range, his proclivity for making boneheaded fielding errors, his abhorrent pitch selection, his inability to draw a walk, and not being Alcides Escobar. Even his heroics in the postseason that year weren’t enough to change the fanbase’s nor the organization’s collective opinion of the cherubic Cuban shortstop. The latter declined his 2012 team option and the former rejoiced.
Despite being re-signed on much different terms this time around, news of Betancourt’s return still brought Crew fans through the five stages of grief:
“There’s no way they re-signed him!”
“Did ownership not see Yuni’s 21 errors the last time he was here?! And that’s just the balls he could get to!”
“I’ll buy a 20-pack and a $9 frozen margarita at every game if the team releases him.”
“A nine-year veteran with a .290 OBP… again.”
“Well, maybe he won’t play much.”
And Betancourt wouldn’t be playing much. At least that was the plan.
A perfect storm of Corey Hart’s perceived return date being pushed back, Aramis Ramirez missing two weeks, Segura missing some time with minor injuries, fellow sub-par shortstop Jeff Bianchi starting the season on the DL, and Rickie Weeks falling into one of his signature month-long slumps all coalesced to quickly nullify Betancourt’s intended role, causing even the most rational Brewers supporters to panic. Four games into the season, Yuni had become an everyday starter.
Oddly enough, that might’ve been the best scenario for the Brewers—well, that and Segura and Carlos Gomez being incredible at the plate and in the field. During Betancourt’s torrid April, which (not coincidentally) found Milwaukee winning nine straight, he hit .280, clubbed six homers, drove in 21 runs, and played four defensive positions along the way. Shockingly, he was occasionally put in the cleanup spot in the batting order. Even more shockingly, it didn’t seem that weird after a while. With Ramirez back on the field, Betancourt is primarily playing first base until Corey Hart returns or he cools enough and Gonzalez or Martin Maldonado fill in at first. Now firmly into May, the unlikely stopgap savior still remains the team leader in home runs (beating Ryan Braun by one), is tied with Braun for the team RBI lead, has 29 hits in 32 games, has shown more plate discipline in longer at-bats, added a fifth position to his repertoire, and has yet to commit a fielding error.
Any casual fan, writer, or glance at the polarizing utility man’s previous body of work will quickly assure you the miracles enacted in this brief window of need will soon cease. Whether this weekend or by the All-Star break, this -0.5 WAR punchline’s career trajectory is sure to resume its steady downward slope. At any moment, the tables could turn to find this temporary folk hero’s tale of redemption returning to one of woe and popping up first pitches that were laughably out of the strike zone. Yuniesky Betancourt is not a good baseball player, which makes his miraculous month or so a spectacle to behold. His name will forever be cursed and, almost unfairly, likened to cast members from some of the franchise’s all-time worst teams.
But we’ll always have the spring of 2013, a brief-but-glorious stitch in time in which a cartoonishly unskilled athlete performed like a serviceable one.