From Tragedy to Farce: The Return of Yuni

Karl Marx famously opens his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by writing that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” While the attribution to Hegel is somewhat dubious, the application to yesterday’s events is all too applicable.

Late yesterday afternoon, when the Kansas City Royals were rumored to have agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with Zombie Edgar Renteria, the reaction was mixed with approval, disapproval, and shrugs. But, as Buddy Bell once said, things can always get worse: it turned out the Renteria report was false, and the Royals had given a $2 million deal for 2012 (with incentives; no word on whether it includes the traditional Royals mutual option) to the man they had paid $2 million not to play for them in 2011: Yuniesky Betancourt. The Twitter reaction among Royals fans was swift and changing — from fury to laughter to, in some cases, apology. In the space of minutes things indeed moved from tragedy to farce (I heard somewhere that inserting historical references into posts gets you great gigs down the road). But if the facts surrounding the case of the Betancourt Farce are fairly plain for all to see, their “meaning” for the future of the the Dayton Moore-led Kansas Royals is not so clear.

Beginning with the obvious: Yuniesky “And Plus Hands” Betancourt is a terrible major-league baseball player (I added “major league” because obviously people might otherwise read this and think I was saying he couldn’t even hang with Little Leaguers. Happens all the time.). There is no need to repeat his litany of failure at length. His 2009 season split between Seattle and Kansas City was one of the worst seasons in recent memory. Somehow, he remained a full-time player in 2010 for the Royals (were he was almost worth one win in full-time play, which somehow seemed to be a “good” year for him). In 2011, he was the poison pill in the Zack Greinke trade with Milwaukee, where he managed half-a-win above replacement. Much attention has focused on Betancourt’s horrible defense, and rightly so — it is obvious without even looking at the numbers that he is only nominally a shortstop, negating whatever positional adjustment one deems appropriate. However, this sometimes seems to gloss over how horrible his bat is. Hey, he doesn’t strike out much! But he never walks, and has little power (the occasional brief surge notwithstanding). Remember his “miracle” 2010? His wOBA was .300. It was .271 in 2009 and .278 this past season. Oliver projects him to hit for a .279 wOBA in 2012. Betancourt projects at around replacement level. I suppose one could say he could project as 0.5 WAR over a full-season, but that is both pushing it and quibbling over details given the level of “precision” one expects in projected total value. Basically, the Royals just gave away $2 million for no reason. The Best Farm System Ever can’t produce a league-minimum utility infielder?

Half-hearted “defenses” of the deal have been bandied about. After all, didn’t other replacement level utility players (the role fro which Betancourt is slated) like John McDonald and Willie Bloomquist get similar, or even more guaranteed money? This is true, but if comparisons to those hilariously silly deals are hardly compliments to the Betancourt contract. Another potential response is that the Royals did not have any better options for the bench. However, 1) that misses the point of replacement level, 2) leaves aside the money issue, 3) ignores the fact the Betancourt may be one of the few players in baseball as bad or worse than Chris Getz, and 4) conveniently leaves aside that the Royals traded a superior player to Betancourt in Mike Aviles to Boston for 5) a superior player to Betancourt in Yamaico Navarro, who was then traded for two “interesting” (ahem) pitching prospects earlier this off-season. One could be generous to Betancourt and say that Aviles and Navarra are just as bad with the glove, but they both project as something like .300 wOBA hitters, about 10 runs better than Betancourt over a full-season.

There are two other rationalizations worth addressing. The first is that Betancourt will mostly be backing up second and third base, where he will not be as bad defensively as he is at shortstop. This is a fairly logical assumption, but a) the decrease in defensive “responsibility” is matched by an increased burden on his bat, and more importantly b) Betancourt has only played 63 innings at second in the majors way back in 2005, and has never played at third. Yes, shortstop is more difficult, but the successful transition to being better at second and third is not a given, and Betancourt is, shall we say, not reputed to have the sort of work ethic that would make that transition smooth.

Finally, perhaps my favorite “defense” Yuni II: The Electric Boogaloo is that “the Royals hardly ever use their bench, so he won’t play that much.” Royals manager Ned Yost did rarely use his bench last season, but while the training staff does seem to have done a good job keeping guys healthy in 2011, it also seems like that string of luck is unlikely to continue. In addition, that assumes that both Mike Moustakas and (especially) Johnny Giavotella will be just fine next year and not need to get sent down if they struggle. Finally, it seems really odd to defend any signing, let alone one for a utility player being guaranteed $2 million, by saying “he will hardly ever play.” That sounds more like a job for a league-minimum player than player who will be 30, no useful baseball skills, upside, and not even the silly reputation for being a “good clubhouse guy” like Willie Bloomquist or John McDonald.

But this post is not intended as another anti-Betancourt rant against general manager Dayton Moore. Yes, Betancourt is terrible and the signing is pointless at best. Yes, it reflects poorly on Moore’s abilities with respect to both roster construction and evaluating talent that can drink legally in the United States. However, while I have written plenty of snarky rants along those lines about Moore and other general managers, my attitude has shifted a bit. It is not just that in the larger scheme of things, flushing $2 million dollars on a worthless bench player down the toilet really is not that big of a deal. Indeed, that “defense” sort of misses the point — this signing can be see as just another decision in a string of bad decisions that points to a bad general conception of how to build a major-league roster on Moore’s part (a string that is only mitigated, not eliminated, by the success of Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera in 2011).

However, at the risk of making this post too narcissistic, my attitude about such matters has shifted. While I still think that just having the Best System Ever is not enough to build a winning team if the front office consistently makes poor decisions in other areas, I am not sure that Dayton Moore has crossed the line yet. In the past I was, but while this is more evidence that Moore has not learned as much as Royals fans might hope, he is not the only general manager who seems to have these sorts of problems. It is not just unsuccessful GMs, either. Kevin Towers, as previously mentioned, made the playoffs this last season (and had some success as Padres GM, as well) and went ahead and made bad deals for Bloomquist, McDonald, and then Jason Kubel (of course, most of the team Towers took to the 2011 playoffs was not “his.”) Internet Superstar Alex Anthopolous has made a number of impressive moves, and while it is still early on, he seems to generally be moving the Jays in the right direction. However, he voluntarily traded for an arbitration-eligible Jeff Mathis, one of the few players in baseball that I would argue are clearly worse than Betancourt. That does not mean he cannot make the Jays winners. Perhaps my favorite “upside” comparison for the Dayton Moore Royals are the Dan O’Dowd Rockies. The parallel is not perfect, but it is there. The Rockies’ core was initially built from the inside or by trading home-grown players, and they are a pretty good team who have managed to make the playoffs or contend a reasonable number of times the past few seasons. They have managed to do this despite the team’s curious decision making: constantly burying Chris Iannetta to the point of devaluing him when they traded him, the Brad Hawpe fetish, Ty Wigginton, wasting Seth Smith (and now the Cuddyer deal), Melvin Mora, Casey Blake and so on. They have made good decisions, as well, but overall, without getting into every detail, the Rockies have managed to be a pretty good franchise despite a consistent pattern of sub-optimal decision making. Heck, the Giants won the 2010 World Series with a good young core of pitchers despite years of terrible decisions by Brian Sabean.

That is not to say that Dayton Moore is sure to succeed in Kansas City, or that the Betancourt deal is “no big deal.” (This is professional sports, put in “perspective,” nothing is a “big deal.”) This Betancourt deal is a bad decision that reflects poorly on Moore. However, the Royals current front office is far from the only one to make these sorts of baffling decisions, and many of those who have done so and continue to do so have found a decent amount of success. This deal is discouraging, but even if Betancourt’s return is a farcical recapitulation of the worst of the Dayton Moore Era, it does not mean the Royals under his leadership are doomed.

Or perhaps I am just mellowing with age.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

newest oldest most voted

If Betancourt truly is better than Jeff Mathis (and he probably is), the Royals should also teach Betancourt to be their backup catcher.