The aura of a top prospect can continue to glow long after the player has proven ineffective. There’s always a glimmer of hope that with a fresh start in a new organization the former prospect can fulfill some of his promise. Rarely does it actually happen. In this way the Royals have gotten lucky. During the off-season they signed Wilson Betemit to a minor league contract. About two months into the season they called him up, and he has been a major contributor ever since. While it’s doubtful that his current performance will carry over to next year, the Royals still might have found a useful player for 2011.
Betemit’s story begins in 1996 when, at age 15, the Braves signed him to an amateur free-agent contract. That turned out to be a big mistake. MLB mandates that international free agent signings must be at least 16 years old. The Braves and Betemit eventually reached a new agreement, but MLB did bar the Braves from signing Dominican prospects for six months. Betemit did play in the GCL in 1997 and returned there in 1998, but in neither year did he stand out. It wasn’t until he reached the Appalachian League in 1999 that he truly broke out, a .320/.383/.463 line in 291 PA. That earned him the No. 99 spot on Baseball America’s Top 100.
In 2000, playing in the New York-Penn League, Betemit’s stock continued rising. He hit .331/.393/.457 in 308 PA and moved up to No. 29 on BA’s prospect list, and reached No. 1 for the Braves. In 2001, he didn’t overly impress in the Carolina League, but he absolutely tore up the AA Southern League. After he hit .355/.394/.514, the Braves called him up for September. Before the 2002, season BA rated him the No. 8 prospect in baseball. That was the height of his fame. He wouldn’t crack a .336 OBP again until 2004. By 2005, he was out of options and had to stay with the major league team, though his .337 wOBA made him a good utility infielder. In 2006, Betemit produced a .355 wOBA in 219 PA before the Braves traded him to the Dodgers.
Betemit was actually traded at the deadline in both 2006 and 2007, and in both instances he went from performing well with the first team to stumbling with the second. After a disappointing 2008 season the Yankees traded him to the White Sox in the Nick Swisher deal. He performed miserably in his 50 PA there and didn’t fare much better in AAA, so the White Sox let him go. That’s where the Royals come into play. They took on no risk by signing Betemit to a minor league deal, but they have realized plenty of reward. Even though nine Royals have more PA than him this season, he is still third on the team in WAR.
It doesn’t take much more than a glance at Betemit’s BABIP to see that his .410 wOBA won’t last much longer. While he has always been a high-BABIP guy — .333 career rate — a hits on balls in play rate of 38 percent is obviously unsustainable. Running his results through the xBABIP calculator we can see that a .314 BABIP is a more reasonable figure. Assuming all non-BIP results remain the same Betemit would have 63 hits instead of 73. That would lower his average from .317 to .274 and his OBP from .399 to .361. If those missing 10 hits were all singles it would reduce his SLG from .552 to .509. Going one step further, if we assume a career average BABIP and all the same non-BIP results, Betemit would be hitting .287/.373/.522. Either way he’d still be having a productive season.
After the season the Royals will have a decision to make. Betemit’s service this year will push him over the five-year mark, meaning he has one year of arbitration remaining. Should the Royals make the offer? His performance this year, even adjusted for a high BABIP, suggests that it would be a wise move. Other factors should also move the Royals to tender him a contract this December. It won’t be a risk-free decision this time around, but it’s one that a team like the Royals should make.
In terms of salary the Royals shouldn’t worry. They have a few arbitration cases to deal with, including Billy Butler, but for the most part the money coming off the books — Jose Guillen, most notably — should more than offset those raises. Betemit also doesn’t figure to earn top dollar in the arbitration process. His peak salary was $1.3 million, so he should be in the $2 million range, $2.5 million tops. Considering the Royals had previously committed $1.7 million to Willie Bloomquist in 2010, they can surely afford a few hundred thousand extra for Betemit.
Betemit would also have a chance to amass some playing time early in the year. This year he has spent the majority of his time manning third base, and that position figures to be open this off-season. The Royals have Mike Moustakas on the rise, but chances are he’ll start the 2011 season in the minors to hold back his arbitration clock. That means the Royals could have a few months where they need a third baseman. Josh Fields is one option, though he hasn’t done much in the majors. Signing Betemit, then, could give the Royals a solid option at third base until Moustakas arrives. Even after that Betemit can serve as a backup at most positions.
The Royals have a farm system that could lead to a bright future, but expecting them to contend in 2011 is still a bit optimistic. Prospects like Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Montgomery are still a few years away from realizing their potential, if they are going to at all. But that doesn’t mean the Royals should just punt on the season. They have a useful player on their team who will be available at a fairly reasonable salary. Wilson Betemit might not be a long-term solution, but he can certainly help lay the bridge between the present and the future. There seems little reason for the Royals to not tender him a contract this December.
Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.