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All-Aught Indians: RP1: Rafael Betancourt (2003-2009)

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Rafael Betancourt

Rafael Betancourt

Rafael Betancourt was clearly the best Tribe reliever during the Aughts. Like many of the Tribe pitchers of the decade, Betancourt was a bit of a reclamation project. He had spent the previous six seasons all over the place learning how to pitch, and it all came together with the Indians. Betancourt threw a low-to-mid-90’s fastball, a curve and a changeup, and while none of his pitches were considered plus pitches, it was his location that made him special.

The All-Aught Indians top relief pitcher is Rafael Betancourt.

There isn’t a longer, stranger trip to the All-Aught Indians roster than Betancourt, but there isn’t likely a better candidate than the best pitcher in the Aught’s bullpen. The right-hander was signed by the Boston Red Sox out of Venezuela as a good fielding, light hitting shortstop. That’s clearly the best path towards becoming a reliever.

Betancourt, who worshiped the ground that Omar Vizquel walked on, wanted nothing more than to play shortstop in the bigs. Unfortunately for Betancourt, he couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag. Thankfully, Boston farm director Bob Schaefer thought  of a way to keep him a relevant professional, and suggested Betancourt try pitching, and after seeing him make three tosses, knew it was the right move.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t turn sunny right away. His path ahead was a long and complicated one.

Bettancourt headed to Double A Trenton for the Red Sox, but injury issues and struggles learning to pitch led the Red Sox to release him. He headed to Japan for a season, was sent to the minors there after a short stint in the major leagues, then returned to the States with some relief experience and re-signed with the Red Sox.

After a month at AA, Bettancourt was shut down for the season before undergoing surgery on his right elbow to transpose the ulnar nerve as well as having a metal rod placed in his right forearm to stabilize his right elbow and ulna. The Red Sox released him, and he sat out the entire 2002 season.

Enter the Cleveland Indians, who did what they do, and took a flier on him prior to the 2003 season.

The Tribe called him up to the majors in July of 2003 after dominating in Akron and throwing in a brief stint at Buffalo, and he was spectacular. He gave up a run in his first outing, but was light’s out for the entire season. He went 2-2 with a save and a 2.13 ERA. He made 33 appearances, with 37 innings pitched. He struck out 36, while walking only 13 batters. If you take away his first outing, his ERA dropped to 1.96. Not bad for a former shortstop who had missed the entire 2002 season.

In 2004, Betancourt posted a 3.92 ERA in his first full season with the Indians. It was really a feeling out process for the Tribe, as they moved him into different roles throughout the season, including a stint as a closer. His ERA is a bit bloated from a couple of bad outings, but Betancourt continued to have stretches of brilliance.

In 2005, Betancourt was again brilliant. He started the year with a nine inning scoreless streak, and ended the year in similar fashion, with a 1.29 ERA over his last 12 outings. Overall, Betancourt went 4-3 with a save, and a 2.79 ERA.

Unfortunately for the blooming relief star, his season was marred as he became the 6th player suspended for using steroids, and missed ten games in July.

Betancourt continued his steady hand in 2006, going 3-4 with a 3.81 ERA and three saves. He spent nearly a month on the DL (third straight year with time spent on the dl) with a strained lat muscle that really hampered his consistency.

Betancourt had his best season as a member of the Tribe in 2007, when he wasn’t even arguably the best relief pitcher in all of baseball. He went 5-1 with a 1.47 ERA and three saves in 79.1 innings pitched. He struck out 80 batters, and walked only 9. It clearly was the best relief season for the Indians in the entire decade, and you could put his numbers up with anyone in the league over the first decade.

While Betancourt had his worst season in 2008, he rebounded slightly in 2009. Unfortunately for the Indians, their best reliever in the new decade cost too much money for a rebuilding club. The Indians dealt him to Colorado, ending one of the most successful relief tenures in recent Indians’ history.

When Betancourt was on, he was the best in baseball. That, combined with his longetivity make this half of Dos Rafael Cleveland’s RP1.

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