The Betemit Conundrum

If you go to the leaderboard, click on the advanced tab and set minimum plate appearances to 150, you’ll see something rather shocking, especially if you haven’t been paying attention to the Royals this year.

Justin Morneau, .447 wOBA
Miguel Cabrera, .446 wOBA
Josh Hamilton, .445 wOBA
Joey Votto, .435 wOBA
Wilson Betemit, .431 wOBA

Four guys who have played like MVPs this season… and a cast-off minor league free agent who only got called up from Triple-A at the end of May. Which of these is not like the other?

Betemit has been a monster for the Royals since joining the team, hitting .346/.425/.577 in 179 plate appearances. Small sample or not, it’s an impressive batting line. He’s walking and hitting for power, and as a former top prospect, it’s not unthinkable that he’s finally figuring out how to translate his tools into major league skills.

But his overall batting line is also inflated by a fluky .426 batting average on balls in play, which won’t last. Not that anyone thought Betemit was a true talent .346 hitter anyway. The secondary skills are nice, but he strikes out too much to hit for a high average, which is why ZiPS projects him as a .270/.333/.429 guy going forward.

The updated numbers makes him a roughly average hitter, maybe a tick better, which sounds about right for a guy with his skillset. He won’t keep hitting like this, but he’s still a useful player, even with his cover-your-eyes defense around the infield.

To me, however, the most interesting thing about the Betemit story is his potential arbitration case this winter. He’s been around so much that he had accumulated 4 years and 147 days of service before the season, so his time on the Royals roster this year will push him over the five year mark, meaning he’ll be arbitration eligible for the last time. And, given his performance, he’ll want a pretty decent raise.

Since he signed a minor league contract with the Royals during the off-season, Betemit is making the league minimum this year and the most money he’s ever made was the $1.3 million that the White Sox paid him last year. Even with his offensive performance, the fact that he’s only played a part-time role will limit who his agents can point to as comparable players, and he’s unlikely to file for more than $3 million.

The scnario┬áputs the Royals in an interesting situation. He’s been a revelation for them this year, but even they know he won’t keep hitting like this. Further he’s still a brutal defender. The Royals also realize they have Mike Moustakas down in Triple-A. Moustakas is not quite big league ready, but there are reasons to think he could take the third base job next year.

For their situation, paying him a few million dollars in 2010 could easily just be a waste of cash. But non-tendering a guy who is coming off a year like Betemit’s seems untenable. They could try and trade him, but given his previous travels and likely raise, it’s unclear how many teams would actually want to give up anything for him.

It is feasible that Betemit could actually be playing himself out of a job. If he finishes the year with offensive numbers that resemble his current line, he might be too expensive for KC, and yet, his defensive problems and general lack of performance before this year could keep his trade value at a minimum.

It might just be in everyone’s best interests if he finishes the year in a slump. Take some of the shine off of his numbers and he’ll only be able to ask for a modest raise in arbitration, allowing it to make sense for KC to keep him around. Otherwise, they may have to consider non-tendering a guy coming off a career year.

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While I have serious doubts that the Royals will come out of spring training with Mike Moustakas playing third base, I don’t think they will keep Betemit around to do it either. I think they would prefer their stopgap to Moose to be Josh Fields, who has just returned from hip surgery. Moustakas will probably come along in late May or early June, keeping that service time down.