Betancourt signs three-year extension

Betancourt signs three-year extension

SEATTLE -- Yuniesky Betancourt, the Mariners 25-year-old shortstop who was forced to flee his native Cuba on a make-shift raft three years ago, certainly has found a new home in the Northwest.

Betancourt, who rose quickly through the Minor Leagues by displaying his dazzling defensive skills, Wednesday signed a three-year contract extension with the club. His current contract, which pays him $450,000 annually, runs through 2008. Then he'll start his three-year deal with a club option for 2012.

"It is a pretty big change, and I want to thank the organization for giving me this opportunity and not having to go anywhere else," Betancourt said through an interpreter. "This is the first team that I signed with, I like the city, I like the team and I really enjoy my teammates. It would be really sad if I had to leave."

Betancourt made his Major League debut in 2005, appearing in 60 games after playing in just 101 Minor League games. Last season he hit .289 with 28 doubles, six triples, eight home runs and 47 RBIs. He tied Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins for most games played by a shortstop (157) and was first among American League shortstops in triples and fifth in average.

Negotiations on a new deal with his agent Jamie Torres fell into place so quickly that even Betancourt was caught unaware.

"I was surprised at how fast this came together," he said, "but this is where I wanted to be, so there was no reason to wait any longer. I'm sure [my family is] very happy, but up until today, I didn't know much about it."

General manager Bill Bavasi, who announced the new deal before Wednesday's game, was asked if the club believed he had this potential when he first arrived in the U.S.

"Yeah we did, largely because of [scout] Bob Engle's influence," Bavasi said. "Watching him, you could see him develop. But he really started taking off after we switched him and [Jose] Lopez [from second base to shortstop] in Triple-A. The answer is yes, we really did envision something like this."

Betancourt has slipped comfortably into the Mariners organization from the day he arrived, mainly because of his easy smile and calm disposition.

"We think he has a chance to become complete player, not just a defensive player," Bavasi said. "He can be a solid offensive player, too. He's not going to take a rah-rah leadership role, but his leadership comes from his joy for playing.

"It's really easy for everyone to assume, 'Gosh, everything's great for this guy because he's always so happy.' But he's got things he worries about, like everyone else. He's the breadwinner in his family, and right now he won a lot of bread. But getting to that point was not very easy. He has battled through a lot of things in his lifetime. But he keeps such a great attitude on the field and I think that's contagious, too."

Ironically, Betancourt likely will miss the team's next game, Friday in Cleveland, because of issues dating back to his arrival from Cuba. He is scheduled to testify Thursday in Miami at the smuggling trial of agent Gustavo "Gus" Dominguez, who is charged with 53 counts of trying to smuggle Cuban baseball players into the U.S.

Bob Sherwin is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.