Kotsay comes through

The Brewers’ bench once looked like a place where veterans and youngsters alike go to end their careers.  Rotating through such light hitters as Juan Nieves (.140), Carlos Gomez (.224), Brandon Boggs (.158), Craig Counsell (.172), and Josh Wilson (.241), perhaps the biggest bench disappointment was 35-year-old OF Mark Kotsay.

Through June, Kotsay looked like he would never live up to even his modest $800k salary. April and May brought difficulties as Kotsay adjusted to a limited bench role, but his worst month would come in June when he hit just .194 with a .226 slugging percentage.  As injured bullpen arm Takashi Saito reached the terminal stages of his DL stint, Kotsay, set to earn a $100k incentive bonus, must have been considered internally as a prime candidate for release.

Kotsay must have received the message.  This month, he’s gone 10-25 with 2 HR and 6 RBI.  His biggest contribution:  a walk-off 2 RBI single to take the Brewers past the Reds tonight, 8-7.  Kotsay also chipped in with a solo home run in the sixth, which temporarily gave Milwaukee the lead.  Kotsay’s prowess at the plate could not come at a better time, either, as Ryan Braun has sat out the past six games with a calf strain.

Ron Roenicke claims he saw the turnaround coming.  “Early in the season, I know his batting average wasn’t real good, but he was really hitting the ball hard.  We went into Chicago, and he got a little out of (sorts) there and stayed that way for a couple of weeks.  He bounced out of it. He put together some unbelievable at-bats today. To hit that last one, a fastball in, that was impressive.”

It sure impressed Reds starter Mike Leake, who called the loss “by far the toughest one of the year.”

The bench continues to present problems for the Brewers.  Counsell has value because of his versatility in the field, but his .172 average coming off his unproductive pinch-hit at bat tonight would be the worst mark of his career. Carlos Gomez, who has settled into a full platoon with Nyjer Morgan in center, has still failed to use all of his talent at the dish.  George Kottaras and Josh Wilson have been somewhat productive, but the Brewers still lack a clutch player to bring in at critical junctures.  Hopefully, everyone else on the pine was taking notes from Kotsay today.

Is Yuniesky Betancourt replaceable?

In light of Craig Counsell’s blockbuster night in relief of Yuniesky Betancourt-Counsell featured a hot bat, plate patience, exceptional base running and stellar defense-now seems like a good time to inquire into Betancourt’s future.  While Ron Roenicke has said he is satisfied with Betancourt’s defense,* which was widely considered a liability coming into the season, it is Betancourt’s bat that has been most disappointing.  Through June 11, Betancourt is batting only .230, with a paltry 2.56 on base percentage.  That, in turn, has prompted Roenicke to say that he is looking elsewhere for production from the shortstop position.  At this point, it seems inevitable that the Brewers will exercise their $2 million buyout and allow Betancourt to become a free agent at the end of the season.

But what are the chances that the Brewers can pull off a trade to replace Betancourt before then?  In short, not that good.  If we assume that teams will be most motivated to move shortstops in their walk year, the list of available players shortens to ten (excluding Betancourt, of course).**  If we further exclude those players who would not bring any offensive benefit, or are injured, that list stands at three: Jimmy Rollins [PHI], Jose Reyes [NYM] and a former Brewer, J.J. Hardy [BAL].

Rollins, who looked headed for a DL stint until a few days ago, is currently earning $8.5 million as a member of the first-place Phillies.  But Rollins is filling an important role on a team starved for offense with Chase Utley out of the lineup.  Although Rollins is not having any type of career year at the dish, the Phillies, who have their eyes on the postseason,  are probably not thinking about moving him.

Brewers fans who watched the last Mets series will be familiar with Reyes, who has put himself in a position to be one of the top free agents in the 2012 class (slash line of .340/.387/.519).  He projects to be easily a type A free agent, which means the Brewers will have to compensate for both Reyes’ value as a player and the expected draft haul the Mets would get as compensation for his departure.  As one site correctly notes, the Brewers “do not have the prospects to get Reyes.”

Oddly enough, the most likely trade target is a Brewers alumnus, Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy.  He’s been injured this year, but Hardy has managed to put together a respectable line when healthy (.288/.370.492), leading Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun to urge the Orioles’ GM to begin discussing an extension.  As Zrebiec notes, the Orioles don’t have anyone in their system ready to play that position next year, so the overall value of a trade package will have to include some measure of compensation (either in player value or money) for their future shortstop needs.

If the Brewers are unable to work a trade, get ready to see more of Craig Counsell and the unexpectedly hot-hitting Josh Wilson, who has clubbed two of his nine career home runs with the Brewers in only nine at-bats.

* I have trouble reconciling the statistics with what I’ve seen in the field with Betancourt defensively.  Betancourt can make exceptional plays in big situations, but seems to occasionally flub up routine ones that lead to errors but don’t often hurt the Brewers.  Yet his ultimate zone rating, a measure of how many runs a player saved defensively, stands at -4.4 (-15.3 if you extend over 150 games), and Betancourt has committed only slightly more errors than a league-average shortstop (-1 ErrR).  He generally looks like he has good range and can get to most balls, but Fangraphs says otherwise (-4.2 RngR).  The stats say this guy is simply a liability on defense; I kind of fall closer to the Roenicke camp, but saying that Betancourt is not quite the liability you expected defensively is not saying much.

**There may well be some other shortstops on multi-year contracts out there that are available, but I’m far less in-in-the-know about which are being shopped.