Rockies Find Relief In Form Of Indians’ Rafael Betancourt

The Deal
Making a play for the NL wild card, the Rockies shipped prospect righthander Connor Graham to the Indians for 34-year-old righthanded reliever Rafael Betancourt.

News that they’d be without reliever Manny Corpas until September prompted Colorado to swing a trade for a replacement. They stand alone atop the wild card standings, one and a half games ahead of the Giants before play on July 23. Mimicking their late-season run to the World Series in 2007, the Rockies had gone 20-10 in the 30 games prior to the trade to catapult ahead of their NL West rivals.

The Young Player
For a third-year pro who was a fifth-round pick from a Division I program, Graham has moved deliberately through the Rockies system. An ’07 draftee from Miami (Ohio), he spent the entire 2008 season with low Class A Asheville, ranking second in the South Atlantic League with a 2.26 ERA. He was following a similar route this season. The 23-year-old Graham has spent all of ’09 pitching in the tough high Class A California League, where he had gone 7-4, 3.14 for Modesto with 87 strikeouts and 41 walks in 80 1/3 innings. At the time of the trade, Graham ranked sixth in the Cal League in ERA, behind a quintet of lefthanders headed by Lake Elsinore’s Cory Luebke. Perhaps best of all, Graham had managed to navigate through 16 starts while giving up just two home runs.

While he throws hard, sitting in the low- to mid-90s and touching 96 mph, Graham has struggled to throw strikes. Last season, he ranked second in the SAL with 83 walks; this time out, he had had improved to eighth, but with a total (41) that still figured at 4.6 per nine innings. At the root of Graham’s adventures with the strike zone are a hard slider he struggles to control and a fastball with plus natural life. Those two weapons, alone, give him a chance to make it as a big league reliever. But if he refines his curveball or changeup, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Graham may have a future in the rotation.

Quick Take
The Indians, unlike the Rockies, are playing for tomorrow. With an AL-leading 58 losses, Cleveland first shipped Mark DeRosa to St. Louis a month ago. Now they follow by trading Betancourt and the what’s left of his $3.35 million salary to Colorado. The Rockies can choose whether they want to pick up the reliever’s $5.4 million option for 2010.

Betancourt has appeared in just four big league games since the end of May, as he missed six weeks with a strained right groin. But even when healthy, he bore only a passing resemblance to the relief ace he was two years ago. This season, Betancourt had maintained a strong strikeout rate (32 in 30 2/3 innings), but his walk rate has crept up to a career-high 4.4 per nine innings. He had compiled a 3.52 ERA over 29 appearances. Still, the Rockies couldn’t exactly sit still with their playoff lives at stake, and a hard-thrower in the low minors often serves as ideal bait in win-now trades such as this one.

In addition to the trade for Betancourt, the Rockies today promoted top pitching prospect Jhoulys Chacin, a 21-year-old righthander, from Double-A Tulsa. As far as developmental paths go, his has been just about the exact opposite of Graham’s. A virtual unkown heading into ’08, Chacin has rocketed through the Rockies system, landing in Denver only a year after bursting on the scene in Asheville. He’ll reportedly serve in a middle relief role.

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