SURPRISE, Ariz. — Longtime shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt will admit to a learning curve this spring when it comes to playing third base in his new role as the Royals’ utility infielder. But playing second?
“That’s the position I played in Cuba,” he said. “I used to play that position every day down in Cuba. When I came to this country after (the Mariners) signed me, they converted me to shortstop.”
Betancourt, 30, spent all seven of his previous professional seasons as a shortstop. That includes a year and a half for the Royals before a Dec. 19, 2010, trade sent him to Milwaukee with pitcher Zack Greinke.
The four-player return included shortstop Alcides Escobar, who firmly established himself last season as a fixture in the Royals’ infield for years to come. So, when free-agent Betancourt sought a new club last winter, the Royals appeared out.
That changed when Betancourt, with no better offers available, agreed to shift to a utility role. He rejoined the Royals exactly one year and one day after that trade to Milwaukee by accepting a one-year offer for $2 million.
“I felt good here,” he said, “and I had a good year here. That’s the main reason I came back. I know my role is different, but all I can tell you is I’m ready every time I get the call to play. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why they signed me back.”
Betancourt set career highs in 2010 when he produced 16 homers and 78 RBIs for the Royals. That came in 151 games, which marked the fifth time in six healthy big-league seasons that he topped 150.
That isn’t likely to happen this season, barring injuries, but manager Ned Yost is promising steady work at a variety of positions.
“I think Yuni will start three or four times a week,” Yost said, “and we’ll be able to keep everybody strong in that infield. I don’t think we’re going to lose a beat. It’s a perfect scenario.”
Club officials never accepted the general sabermetric view on Betancourt, which contends he is a liability in the field because of limited range and at the plate because of a .292 career on-base percentage.
“We looked at all of that,” general manager Dayton Moore said, “but our people are convinced he was the best fit for what we wanted in a utility infielder. He just played shortstop all season for a playoff team (in Milwaukee).
“He’s a right-handed hitter with some power. That means he can give (third baseman Mike) Moustakas a break against tough left-handers and give us a right-handed bat off the bench. He’s durable, and we believe he can play all three positions.”
Yost is quick to dispel the notion that Moustakas will be platooned. Rather, Betancourt will merely provide occasional breaks — as he will for Escobar at short and whoever wins the starting job at second.
“Yuni has good-enough hands and good-enough range,” Yost said, “that we think he can play all three positions. If you can play short, you’re athletic enough to play the other two.”
Betancourt can’t ever recall playing third base but doesn’t anticipate a problem — and appeared comfortable Monday when he started at third against Texas. He made two slick plays and turned one into a double play.
“It’s all about the mind-set,” Betancourt said, “and my mind-set is I can play everywhere. I believe that when you’re a shortstop, you can play everywhere on the field. That’s the way I see it, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
While Betancourt isn’t causing waves, neither is he ready to see his future solely as a utility player.
“I’m used to playing every day,” he acknowledged. “I believe in my talent, and I believe what I can do on the baseball field. I only have to wait for my opportunity and for (my talent) to take over.”