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Wilson Betemit for Scott Proctor

As we inch toward the 4:00 pm trading deadline, the Yankees have made what could turn out to be their only deadline deal by sending Scott Proctor back to the Dodgers for infielder Wilson Betemit. This trade impresses me in several ways:

First, this is not a win-now trade. Rather than giving up prospects for middle relievers of dubious value, the Yankees have traded a 30-year-old middle reliever of dubious value for a 25-year-old infielder in his third full major league season whose top PECOTA comp is Carlos Guillen. There’s some question as to how the Yankees will utilize Betemit, but there’s no doubt that they got the superior player in the deal.

Second is just how talented Betemit is. A switch-hitter who can play second, third, and short and even made an emergency appearance in right field for the Dodgers earlier this year, Betemit has a good bit of pop and improving plate discipline and probably deserves a starting job somewhere in the major leagues.

I’ll take a closer look at Betemit in just a second, but before I do, the third thing that impresses me about this deal is that Brian Cashman essentially turned Robin Ventura (whom he dealt to the Dodgers for Proctor and Bubba Crosby at the 2003 deadline) into Betemit, getting Proctor’s solid 2006 season out of the pen along the way. The Ventura deal infuriated me at the time. I was sure that Ventura would have been a valuable bat off the bench in the Yankees’ postseason run, and I’m still convinced that he could have made the difference in the 2003 World Series, but it’s hard to argue against it now. Ventura, then 35, played 151 games for the Dodgers over a season and a half, totaling 1.5 wins over replacement (per Baseball Prospectus’s WARP) for L.A. before retiring. In parts of three seasons, Crosby accumulated 0.7 WARP and was sent on his way before he could do much harm (Adam Kennedy’s “triple” in the 2005 ALDS was as much if not more Gary Sheffield’s fault than Crosby’s). Proctor, meanwhile, compiled 6.1 WARP for the Yankees over four seasons (4 of those wins coming last year) to give the Yankees a 5.3 win advantage in the Ventura trade alone. That the Yankees now have Betemit to show for all of that is just fantastic work on Cashman’s part.

Wilson Betemit was signed as a right-hand-hitting shortstop out of the Dominican Republic by the Atlanta Braves in 1996. The deal was illegal as Betemit was just 14 at the time, but the Braves paid the penalty to keep Betemit, who learned to switch-hit and by the age of 19 was hitting .355/.394/.514 in double-A, which earned him a brief cup of coffee in the major leagues and a whole lotta hype. Betamit stalled out there, however, struggling with his weight, shifting to third base, and spending the next three years at triple-A, struggling in the first and showing only mild improvements in the next two before getting his second taste of the majors with brief call-ups in May and September of 2004 at the age of 22. Out of options in 2005, Betemit finally spent a full season in the bigs and even got to start at third base during Chipper Jones’ annual stint on the disabled list. He hit a solid .305/.359/.435 that season and .281/.344/.497 the next year with Atlanta before being flipped to the Dodgers at the 2006 trading deadline for Danys Baez and Willy Aybar. Installed as the Dodgers’ starting third baseman, Betemit kept up that pace with a little less patience but a bit more power through early September, but then slumped badly hitting .175/.264/.238 from September 5 through the end of the 2006 season. Betemit was even worse in April of this year, hitting .120/.299/.160 through May 1, but since then he’s been raking to a .283/.392/.623 tune.

Overall, even with those two awful months mixed in, Betemit has seen his isolated power (ISP = SLG – AVG)) and plate discipline (ISD = OBP – AVG) numbers increase in each of the last two seasons from .130 ISP and .054 ISD in 2005, to .206 ISP and .083 ISD in 2006, to .243 ISP and .128 ISD thus far this year, both of which are just outstanding numbers.

Here’s Dodger Thoughts’ Jon Weisman on Betemit‘s Dodger career:

While no All-Star, Betemit, particularly against right-handed pitchers, was quite simply one of the Dodgers’ best hitters. He was often mocked for his propensity to strike out [151 Ks in 604 PA in 2006 and 2007 combined], but those strikeouts distracted the critics from realizing his value.

However many times he made an out, it was more rare than any Dodger infielder except Jeff Kent and James Loney. His slugging percentage was also higher than any Dodger infielder except those two. Much has been made of Nomar Garciaparra’s July hot streak, yet few noticed that Betemit was even hotter, with a .500 on-base percentage and .667 slugging percentage [actually .677].

Betemit lost fans because simply because of the type of outs he made, not because of the quantity. He was a book judged by its cover. And that always makes me sad.

As to why the Dodgers were willing to deal such a player, Weisman again:

“That fact remains that the Dodgers will stick with Garciaparra and Kent at third base and second base for the remainder of the season as long as they stay healthy, so that there was no starting role for Betemit. And with Andy LaRoche, Tony Abreu and Chin-Lung Hu in the minor leagues, the Dodgers are also covered for the future. At least one of these players has a higher ceiling than Betemit.”

Still, Weisman agrees that Betemit is, “a more valuable player than Proctor,” and that “trading for a middle reliever is almost by definition against good judgment, unless you’re giving up a fringe minor-leaguer in the process.” Adding only that, “the Dodgers were probably never going to warm up to Betemit–even though he hit 19 home runs in 330 at-bats as a Dodger.”

So Betemit is a young, multi-talented hitter and infielder who’s good enough to start, but what is he going to do on the Yankees?

That’s a good question. For now I imagine he’ll replace Chris Basak on the roster while Saturday’s starter (who one assumes will be Phil Hughes) will eventually take Proctor’s vacated position on the pitching staff, which had only been carrying four starters since Basak replaced Kei Igawa on Friday. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the Yankees liked Betemit because “he could play first base for them this year,” but failed to mention that Betemit’s never played first base in the major leagues before while Andy Phillips has hit .304/.350/.420 since being recalled, .317/.360/.442 since taking over the starting job at first base, and is in the midst of an 11-game hitting streak. Besides which, Betemit and Phillips would not make a good platoon as both are better against righty pitching (Phillips repeating last year’s odd reverse split, and the switch-hitting Betemit doing the bulk of his damage hitting lefty).

It’s widely believed that Betemit was primarily obtained to be Alex Rodriguez insurance, as Betemit could become the Yankees’ starting third baseman in 2008 should Rodriguez opt out of his contract and sign elsewhere. That’s not a bad get for a redundant right-handed middle reliever who had a 1.51 WHIP on the season, has allowed four homers in his last six innings pitched, and against whom opposing hitters are hitting .298/.391/.482 since June 1. If nothing else, it gives the Yankees the best utility infielder they’ve had under Joe Torre by incredible leaps and bounds, even though it seems likely that Miguel Cairo will stick around to be a redundant drain on the roster (a.k.a. pinch-runner).

Should Rodriguez sign an extension to stay in New York, Betemit could be flipped over the winter for something a lot better than Scott Proctor or retained as the lone utility infielder leaving Cairo to find work elsewhere. Whatever becomes of him, Betemit is a great addition and a significant upgrade for the Yankees whether you’re comparing him to the player he was traded for (Proctor), the player he replaces on the roster (Basak), or the player whose playing time he’ll likely most effect (Cairo).

As for the bullpen, with 15 minutes to go until the deadline, the latest news is that Eric Gagne may be headed to Boston, while Joba Chamberlain and Edwar Ramirez could wind up getting the call to solidify the Yankee pen with Chris Britton still on the DL for Scranton, Brian Bruney likely getting demoted, and the fate of Kyle Farnsworth still to be determined.

Update: Sox got Gagne (for mL CF David Murphy and LHP Kason Gabbard), which gives them an insane endgame provided Gagne stays healthy.

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