Mariners Sign Cuban Star Betancourt

By John Hickey
January 11, 2005

The Mariners concluded a yearlong pursuit of Cuban shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt on Wednesday, signing him to a four-year contract worth $3.65 million.

After the United States government granted final clearance, Betancourt, 22, became a Mariner. As part of his contract, he was put on the 40-man roster and will report to spring training next month. Making it to the 40-man roster is a big step for Betancourt, who didn’t play last year after having fled Cuba on a raft in 2003, eventually landing in Mexico.

“He’s a pretty good-looking ballplayer,” said Benny Looper, the Mariners’ vice president of player development and scouting. “There was a lot of competition to sign him. And that’s what it took to get the deal done.”

Betancourt’s last regular job was as a 20-year-old shortstop/second baseman for Villa Clara in Cuba's Serie Nacional. He played mostly at second base because Eduardo Paret, who has spent most of the past decade as the starting shortstop for the Cuban National Team, was Villa Clara’s shortstop.

“Yuniesky is an athletic, offensive shortstop,” Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi said. “We view him as the equivalent of a first- or second-round draft pick.”

Betancourt, 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, played shortstop for Cuba's bronze-medal winning team during the 2000 World Junior championships, also batting leadoff. (That team also featured recent Angels signee Kendry Morales.) The Mariners scouted the tournament aggressively, signing its MVP, Korea's Shin-Soo Choo, as well as Australian lefthander Travis Blackley out of the event. A coach who saw Betancourt play in Edmonton said he stood out for having natural middle-infield actions, very good hands both in the field and at the plate, and that he was one of the team's top players.

The Mariners plan to have Betancourt begin his career at Double-A San Antonio. Looper said Betancourt is capable of playing outfield and third base, which may become necessary, because some of the best players in the Seattle minor league system are shortstops, including Seattle’s first picks in the past two drafts, Matt Tuiasosopo and Adam Jones.

“We are excited about this,” Looper said. “We like him as a baseball player. I know he can play second; I’ve seen him play second. I think he can play shortstop, too, but shortstops are generally the most athletic players on the team and they can wind up elsewhere."

The Mariners first made contact with Betancourt last January, after Looper saw him play shortly following his exit from Cuba. They’ve had an agreement in principle with Betancourt and his agent, Jaime Torres, since Dec. 16. But neither side could say anything while the U.S. Treasury Department looked into Betancourt.

Cuban exiles need clearance from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. That office administers and enforces the U.S. sanctions on foreign governments, including Cuba’s. The Mariners got word this week that Betancourt had received clearance.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Betancourt, Aaron Looper, Benny’s son, was designated for assignment.

John Hickey covers the Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.