In Betancourt's Absence

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - The difficulty with winning in the minor leagues is that a key component of your team could be headed elsewhere at any time. It's always prevalent in the M's farm system, but when that component happens to be Yuniesky Betancourt, the top middle infield prospect in the entire Texas League, there will be more than slight ramifications.

Considered by many the best young shortstop to come along in quite some time, "Cuba" quickly made quite the first impression on fans, coaches, players and anyone else even remotely following the Missions' season.

"He's the best defensively I've ever seen by any measure – at this position and in this league – period," said longtime Missions broadcaster Roy Acuff. "How he can make those plays?!"

With just five errors in 52 games with San Antonio, the 23-year-old defector posted a .980 fielding percentage that still tops the Texas League, and as such was named a minor league all-star in his first season of pro ball in the states. Statistics and accolades only paint a partial picture, though, as Betancourt's flare and talent were much more than simple number crunching.

The youngster's popularity in San Antonio grew with every jaw-dropping stop he made deep in the hole, never failing to fire a dart to first base and make yet another web gem look oh, so easy.

While unsteady at the plate in the early-goings, Betancourt was just beginning to heat up when he packed his bags for Tacoma, which likely factors in heavily to why he was promoted at that particular time. During his stay in San Antonio, the right-handed hitting shortstop posted a.273 average with 10 doubles, five home runs and 12 steals, rounding out the five elements of his tool box.

Betancourt was not be able to join former Missions teammmates Bobby Livingston, T. J. Bohn and Jesus Guzman for the Texas League All-Star Game in Frisco on June 21, as he and fellow invitee, RHP Sean Green, were summoned to Triple-A Tacoma just three days apart, concluding a whirlwind final few days of May that left San Antonio a mere shell of the team that opened the season with boundless potential, not to mention an 8-0 start at home.

"He brought energy and excitement, offensively and defensively," said Missions shortstop Eddie Menchaca. "We were a more complete team with him and (departed catcher) Rene (Rivera), whether it was Cuba making a play in the hole or Rene throwing somebody out. Those were two good guys to have in the clubhouse – two humble guys with great attitudes."

After winning his Missions debut back in April, southpaw Thomas Oldham said that he was amazed by Betancourt's play, betting he would not be around the finish out the season. That prophecy now rings true, and in addition, a scout predicted before Betancourt's promotion that the slick-fielding rookie would be on his way to Tacoma this season before joining Seattle for the start of the 2006 campaign.

Mighty high expectations, indeed – especially for a first-year pro – but what would you expect from a player the Mariners signed to a guaranteed $3.65 million contract and confidently placed on the 40-man roster?

"He's a bonafide major league prospect – any team would miss this guy," said Missions manager Dave Brundage. "He could play defense in the bigs right now. Shortstops like that don't come around often. I remember playing with Omar Vizquel and thinking about how talented he was defensively."

In light of the tornado that has blown through the Missions' roster, the team has relied heavily on Menchaca, a fifth-year pro now in his second season with San Antonio. While trying to spell Betancourt, the 24-year-old is hitting .269 with four multi-hit games and six runs scored since being inserted into the everyday lineup. Though these numbers will not knock anybody's socks off, they are better than his season average of .212 in 39 games, while playing sparingly.

"I'm more mentally prepared than I've been," Menchaca said. "You don't have any rhythm coming off the bench."

Still, it's apparent that the team misses Betancourt's expansive range and accurate throwing arm. While Menchaca's defense is solid, Betancourt's absence only makes the deficiencies of the shaky infield a more glaring weakness.

Starting second baseman Ismael Castro is still hampered by an early-season quad injury and as a result is not able to play the field regularly. Guzman is a young player trying to settle in at the hot corner, though his 10 errors pace the team and rank seventh in the Texas League.

As the roster departures have mounted, the losses have not, a peculiar twist to be sure. Since losing Betancourt on June 2, the Missions are 11-7 and rode a five-game winning streak into the break. The team finished the first-half 38-32, a game behind Midland for the West crown and well ahead of Frisco and Corpus Christi for that all-import, second-best record. Even after waving goodbye to their closer (Green), catcher (Rivera) and the M's future at short, the Missions seemed poised to reach the post-season after a one-year hiatus a season ago.

"You miss a guy like that, but our job is to move him to the next level," said hitting coach Gary Thurman. "We haven't stopped winning, and that's a tribute to the rest of the guys after losing the ingredients that we have."

Betancourt has fared quite well in Triple-A Tacoma, hitting .288 with a home run, nine RBI and three steals in 20 games. The future gold glover has made just one error for the Rainiers.

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