Esky For Yuni: Even Up?

The Zack Greinke trade of last December was aptly dubbed a “blockbuster,” meaning that several players changed hands in the transition. So to evaluate the trade requires more than just a one-to-one comparison.

Photo Courtesy of Minda Haas

One of the centerpieces of the trade for the Royals was Alcides Escobar. Their arsenal of top prospects lacked a hot shortstop, and fans lusted for a change from whipping boy Yuniesky Betancourt.

Betancourt was not a centerpiece of the trade. He was a throw-in. Or more accurately, he was a throw-out. The Royals wanted rid of Betancourt, and the Brewers were willing to swap shortstops to get Greinke.

But what if the Royals had had the opportunity to trade Betancourt for Escobar even up during last off-season?

Certainly they would have jumped at the chance. Escobar’s struggles in his debut season in Milwaukee hadn’t completely tarnished his top-10 prospect ranking. Betancourt, on the other hand, couldn’t even get credit for hitting three of the Royals’ four grand slams in 2010. No one liked him, and his chances of emerging from the doghouse in KC were nil.

Looking back now, however, would a trade of Betancourt for Escobar, even up, be such a good idea?

It didn’t always look like a good idea. Like when Betancourt hit .333 with a homer and 5 RBI’s in the National League Championships Series. It didn’t when he scored five runs against the D-Backs in the previous playoff series.

But it did when he muffed an easy ground ball that opened the floodgates against the Cardinals in game 5. And it did when balls that would seem playable by average shortstops eluded his reach repeatedly throughout the playoffs.

Such is life with Betancourt. But under close analysis, is Escobar any better?

Comparison of a few of their numbers would show there wasn’t much difference between the two during the 2011 campaign.

Escobar’s batting average during the first two months of the season would have embarrassed Mario Mendoza. But he heated up to finish with a .254 mark. Yuni, meanwhile, posted a .252 average. No difference there.

Escobar’s .290 OBP was just 10th among AL shortstops – well below average. But Betancourt, who has a career .292 OBP, managed just .271 this year. Advantage Escobar.

Slugging is where Yuni has a decided advantage. Like him or not, you can’t debate that Yuni has developed some pop. His slugging percentage in 2011 was an acceptable .381. Not great but just .007 behind someone named Derek Jeter. And last year, he slugged .405. Escobar on the other hand? An anemic .343 last year. Advantage Betancourt.

After knocking 16 homers in 2010, Betancourt popped 13 more this season. After Ned Yost bragged about Escobar’s power in the spring, his shortstop managed just 4. Big advantage Betancourt.

But while Betancourt begins to look like the better player, we can’t forget to look at the total package. Escobar far outshines Betancourt in the eye test. Who can forget the lazy showing on fly balls? Or the strikeouts with runners on base? Or the lack of speed or range?

Those headache-inducing defensive statistics seemed to back up the perception that Escobar is the far superior fielder. He scored higher in fielding percentage and in putouts + assists per 9 innings. Yost boasted that Escobar’s “runs are in his glove,” meaning that he is taking away an inordinate number of runs from the opponent. His arm is certainly one of the best, and he seems to move much better than Betancourt.

And speaking of moving, Escobar can move on the base paths as well. He was third among AL shortstops with 26 stolen bases. Betancourt has just 30 steals in his 7-year career. Escobar also led AL shortstops with 8 triples. Betancourt has a decent number of triples in his career, but just five in the last two years combined.

So in addition to fielding, Escobar has a definite advantage in two areas – 1) speed and overall athleticism, and 2) age.

Escobar is just 24 and looks lithe and agile. Betancourt is 29 but looks like he’s 39.

Escobar’s stock appears to be trending up, while Betancourt’s is decidedly headed down. Escobar took off after his horrid start and improved drastically over the course of his second season in the bigs. Betancourt, on the other hand, seemed on the decline. I have little doubt that Betancourt will be replaced within the next couple of years and probably won’t even be in the big leagues when Escobar peaks.

Before the season, I wrote the following:

With the proper expectations, Escobar has a great chance of being one of the best in team history. If Escobar could hit .250 with 10 homers and 30-plus stolen bases in a season, he’d fall right in with the best offensive shortstops the Royals have ever had. If he plays excellent defense, it would be first time in a decade the team had that at short.

If he performs any better than that, he could go down as the greatest shortstop in Royals history.

(See the whole article about KC’s history of shortstops)

While he didn’t exactly blow anyone’s mind with his play last year, I’ll stand by that statement. I saw enough potential from June to September to believe Escobar is a significant upgrade over Betancourt. I believe he is Kansas City’s answer at short, and I believe he will be a fixture on great Royals teams for the next decade.

The same could never have been said about Yuni.

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