CLEVELAND — With the July 31 trading deadline approaching, the Indians took the proactive approach Thursday, dealing reliever Rafael Betancourt to the Colorado Rockies for minor league right-hander Connor Graham.
The move was made with an eye to the future. Cleveland is out of contention with the American League’s worst record (37-58), Betancourt is in the final season of his contract and the 23-year-old Graham is considered one of Colorado’s more promising pitching prospects.
“He’s a power pitcher with a big strong body,” said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro of the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Graham, who has spent the entire season with the Class A Modesto Nuts.
Graham is 7-4 with a 3.14 ERA, while striking out 87 and walking 41 in 801/3 innings of 16 starts.
“Command is his area of development, clearly, but he’s a power guy that adds pitching prospect depth, which is our greatest area of need,” Shapiro said.
The trade was orchestrated during the finale of a three-game series in Toronto and announced after Cleveland’s 5-4 victory at Rogers Centre.
“I was here for a long time with this team and I have a lot of good friends here, front office, coaches, players,” Betancourt said. “They’ve always been great to me. I can’t say anything bad about it.”
“He’s been a pretty solid pitcher for us for a while,” Indians ace Cliff Lee said of Betancourt. “He’s going to be missed. I’m sure the organization is trying to make a move to make us better.”
The Indians owned a $5.4 million option on Betancourt for next season that they weren’t expected to exercise in light of the 34-year-old right-hander’s recent results.
Betancourt has been on the decline ever since offering up a breakout out year in 2007, struggling to a 3-4 record and 5.08 ERA last season and going 1-2 with a 3.52 ERA in 29 appearances during an injury-plagued season this year in which he missed six weeks with a strained right groin. He was activated from the disabled list on July 9.
In ’07, the only season the Indians advanced to the postseason under Shapiro and manager Eric Wedge, Betancourt went 5-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 68 games as arguably the top setup man in baseball.
“I think that was just a career year that no one could have recaptured,” Shapiro said. “It was probably one of the elite performances by a non-closer that we’ve seen.”
Disregarding recent history, Betancourt has been one of Cleveland’s most dependable relievers since being converted as a minor league shortstop. He entered this year having appeared in at least 50 games since 2004, while posting an ERA above 3.92 just once.
“It’s time for me to leave and go there and keep pitching and keep playing, try to help the team win games,” Betancourt said. “It’s a sad moment for me right now but I have to be a professional and keep playing.”
Shapiro said Graham would report to Double-A Akron, most likely to continue pitching as a starter.
He is an Ohio native, growing up in Bowling Green and attending Miami of Ohio University, and a fifth-round pick of Colorado’s in 2007. In his first professional season last year, he went 12-6 with a 2.26 ERA in 26 starts for low-Class A Asheville.
Following the 2008 season, Baseball America named Graham the 12th-best prospect in the Rockies’ organization.
“We had a track record of watching him, but the trade was made off more recent results,” Shapiro said.
The Betancourt trade could be the first of more to come from the Indians, who are expected to be active around the deadline and are reportedly listening to offers for reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee and three-time All-Star Victor Martinez. Like Betancourt, both high-profile players are in the final years of their contracts, with the Indians holding options on both of them for 2010 — Lee’s worth $8 million ($1 million buyout) and Martinez’s worth $7 million ($250,000 buyout).
“Unless you’ve got (Cardinals first baseman) Albert Pujols, no one should be untouchable,” Shapiro said. “There are guys that we don’t talk about and I’m not going to comment on any individual trades, but our job is to maintain a barometer on the trade market with a variety of players we might talk about. “With players in the last year of their contract, it’s always easy to explore options. There’s a chance something could happen next week. I’ve never been good at handicapping those things. You never know what’s going to happen.”
There’s no telling whether Lee or Martinez, two cornerstones of the club for years, will remain in Cleveland, but it’s a pretty safe bet the Indians won’t be standing still as the deadline looms.
“In these jobs, you need to feel a sense of urgency,” Shapiro said, “so, yes, I feel a sense of urgency to address what I feel are the biggest needs of our club.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.