(Eds: With AP Photos.)By ANDREW WAGNERAssociated Press
At least in recent memory, few Milwaukee Brewers have drawn the ire of fans more than Yuniesky Betancourt.
Acquired in December 2010 as part of the Zack Greinke trade, Betancourt was almost universally reviled and his free-swinging ways did little to change any first impressions.
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While it was no surprise when the Brewers parted ways with Betancourt after the season, it was a shocker when the team signed the 31-year old with just a few days remaining in spring camp. And what he’s done since has left many downright speechless.
Instead of providing a few pinch-hit appearances and offering a day off to infielders, Betancourt has become a key in the Brewers’ offense and proved more than able on defense, filling the voids left by injuries at first and third base.
Through the first 30 games, Betancourt had appeared in 29 and started 26. He was hitting .277 and entered a weekend series with St. Louis tied with Ryan Braun for the team lead with seven home runs. He was one behind Braun with 22 RBIs, leading the league in both categories since April 14.
”He’s more patient than he was before,” manager Ron Roenicke said. ”He sees the off-speed stuff better. Really, he looks like a good offensive player … I don’t want to say he wasn’t a good offensive player two years ago.”
Most wrote off Betancourt after he left the Brewers in 2011. He signed with Kansas City, primarily as a backup to Alcides Escobar – whom he replaced in Milwaukee – but appeared in just 57 games with the Royals, batting .228 with seven home runs and 36 RBIs before being released.
Betancourt latched on with Philadelphia in January, signing a minor league contract with an invite to the big league camp, but he requested his release when it became apparent the Phillies would go with youngsters Freddy Galvis and Kevin Frandsen even after Betancourt hit .447 with three doubles, a home run and 14 RBIs.
”It was a very difficult decision,” Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro said at the time. ”He played great for us. We had some other guys play great, and we’re comfortable with where we are as far as those players are concerned.”
The Phillies’ decision led to a rather unexpected reunion with the Brewers.
General manager Doug Melvin had tried to sign Betancourt earlier in the offseason but he stayed focused on the positives, such as Betancourt hitting .310 for the Brewers in the postseason and some other streaks.
”All that stat stuff, the analyzing, it’s crazy,” Melvin said. ”But the guy does good things. There are a lot of things we look at. He’s versatile, has good, strong hands; good strength. He’s good in the clubhouse and is a good teammate. We talked to him all winter and watched him in spring training. We didn’t think he would be available, the way he was playing.”
A lot of Betancourt’s newfound success is due to a winter ball stint in Mexico, where he focused on becoming much more patient at the plate.
”When I was playing in Mexico, they throw a lot of breaking balls so you have to be very patient,” Betancourt said through an interpreter. ”That really helped me.”
Betancourt was a star in the Cuban leagues before defecting in 2003. After playing first in Mexico, he was found by Mariners scouts and signed with Seattle as a non-drafted free agent in July 2005. He played in 60 games for the Mariners that season, hitting .256 and followed that with back-to-back .289 seasons, during which he hit 66 doubles and drove in 114 runs.
He was traded to Kansas City in July 2010, and spent the next year and a half with the Royals before being shipped to Milwaukee for Escobar, right-handers Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi along with center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
For now, Betancourt is doing all the right things and Roenicke has taken notice.
”I like what he’s doing, obviously,” Roenicke said. ”I don’t know if the pitches per at-bat show that, but he’s different. He’s taking pitches – especially the first pitch. Two years ago he led the league in first-pitch swings. (Now) he’s driving the ball to all fields and doing a lot of things really well offensively.”
With Corey Hart not expected to rejoin the team for at least another month and Aramis Ramirez back in the lineup, Betancourt’s hot bat has made him the top candidate to man first base while still being ready to move wherever he’s needed. On Sunday, he played left field during a 10-1 loss to the Cardinals.
”Things happen in baseball so you never know,” Betancourt said. ”You have to be ready and as long as you are, you get a chance.”