When the Brewers traded four young players to Kansas City and snatched away Zack Greinke, the deal triggered two reactions:
1) The Brewers traded for Zack Greinke? The Brewers?!?!
2) Too bad they had to take back Yuniesky Betancourt to seal the deal.
The Betancourt snark was funny, but few people actually figured it would make a big difference. The Brewers had already nabbed one of the most underrated starting pitchers in the game in Shaun Marcum. Now they were adding one of the best pitchers on the planet in Greinke to team with Yovanni Gallardo and a potent lineup that included the likes of Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Casey McGehee, and Corey Hart. This Brewers team owns enough front-line talent to make a serious run this season. So how much harm could one stone-handed statue of a shortstop possibly cause?
A lot, actually. So much in fact that Betancourt, combined with the rest of a marginal defense, could torpedo a potential run at a championship.
Start with the man Betancourt is replacing. Alcides Escobar posted a 3.5 UZR in 145 games last year, his first full season in the big leagues. You’d like to have three years of UZR data to back up Escobar’s defensive ability, but the scouting reports mesh with the data: Escobar already is, and projects to be, one of the best defenders in the game, at the most important position on the diamond.
Compare Escobar’s profile to Betancourt’s. Yuni’s bulky body makes him a better fit to play a corner position. The problem is, he can’t hit enough to be serviceable offensively at short, let alone at third, first, or the outfield. Of course, he can’t field enough to handle shortstop either, not with an average UZR of -12.5 over the past three years. By swapping out Escobar for Betancourt, the Brewers could be punting 2 wins of defensive value alone in 2011.
The Brewers will trot out one defensive ace this season in center fielder Carlos Gomez. But a full season of one of the best defensive CF would simply replace strong 2010 showings by Jim Edmonds (6.8 UZR in CF) and Lorenzo Cain (2.0 UZR). The rest of the defense offers little in the way of star quality or upside, with veterans (many of them younger veterans, granted) at every position. The Brewers finished 15th in MLB last season with a team UZR of -0.7; it’s tough to imagine that number not getting significantly worse this year.
The bigger issue is a potential cascading effect. As much as we’ve studied the effect of glovework on pitching performance, a lousy defense does more than simply hurt a pitcher’s batting average on balls in play and his ability to prevent runs. It extends innings. It also tests a manager’s patience. Every time Betancourt lunges in vain at a grounder up the middle, Ron Roenicke moves a step closer to calling on his bullpen. It’s a bullpen that could be improved, with Takashi Saito replacing his much less effective 40-something counterpart, the now-retired Trevor Hoffman — and joining a young core led by John Axford and Zach Braddock. But the sooner a team has to call on its bullpen, the more it’s likely to expose its weaker links.
There’s more. Longer innings, working with men on base, and generally pitching under duress, puts potential strain on a pitcher’s arm. Both the Brewers’ starters and relievers risk fatigue, even injury, if they’re made to stand around for long innings because their shortstop probably shouldn’t even be starting in the Pacific Coast League. (For much, much more on the magnitude of this cascading effect, check out Vince Gennaro’s terrific SABR presentation.)
These are all theoretical problems for now, of course. Greinke didn’t tear a rotator cuff in the past season and change, despite Betancourt playing behind him. Shaun Marcum isn’t a big groundball inducer, logging a 38.4% GB rate last year (43.1% and 40.2% in his two previous healthy seasons). Gallardo does allow more grounders than flyballs (42.4% vs. 35.9% for his career), but he’s also not what you’d call the next Brandon Webb.
Still, these things matter on the margins. And the NL Central projects as a division that may well be won by a slight margin this season. The young Reds are coming off a division title, with Jay Bruce moving one year closer to potential stardom and Aroldis Chapman ready to be deployed for his first full season. The Cardinals return the best player in the game and a stellar rotation. Even the Cubs figure to improve with the addition of Matt Garza, enough to at least play spoiler from time to time. The latest CAIRO projections have the Cardinals winning 90 games, the Brewers 87, the Reds 86 – and that’s to say nothing of the Braves’ and other teams’ Wild Card chances.
The news isn’t all bad. While Betancourt produced -11.4 batting runs last season, Escobar was a full win worse, at -21.7. Betancourt is capable of that kind of near-historically bad performance (see 2009’s -23.4 effort), but in any given year, he’s unlikely to be quite as miserable offensively as Escobar and his .235/.288/.326 line of ’10.
Still, Yuniesky Betancourt may be the worst shortstop in baseball, and the rest of the Brewers’ defense isn’t equipped to make up for his shortcomings. Re-signing Craig Counsell to a one-year, $1.4 million could turn out to be one of the most important moves of the Brewers’ off-season, given his still-quality glove. The question is, how often can the Brewers run out a 40-year-old shortstop? Given the in-house alternative, we may be about to find out.
Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.