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04/08/08 4:55 PM ET

Yanks like Betemit in Jeter's place

Former shortstop seen as capable short-term replacement

KANSAS CITY -- Fans might not have been able to tell by watching last season, but Wilson Betemit was once considered a top-flight prospect at shortstop, the kind of player who wouldn't make a manager think twice about having him filling in for Derek Jeter.

At times after coming over to the Yankees from the Dodgers last season, those skill sets seemed a bit too far off for even Betemit himself. Though the utility man made four starts at shortstop after joining the Yankees in July, he felt too big and bulky for the position, sporting a body type better suited for corner-infield duty.

"Last year, I was 235 pounds; now, I'm 220," Betemit said. "Last year was tough. I feel much better today. We eat a lot of rice and beans in the Dominican Republic. I mean, a lot of rice and beans. So you just have smaller portions and be careful about when you eat them. 12 o'clock, 2 o'clock -- that's good."

Betemit's weight loss will receive the ultimate test this week as he backs up Jeter after the Yankees' captain suffered a strained upper left quadriceps on Monday night. In his first start of the season at shortstop, in Tuesday's home opener at Kauffman Stadium, Betemit hit an RBI single in the second inning.

"I know how to play shortstop," Betemit said. "I'll be ready if it's a couple of days or more. That's my position when I came up, and I think I'm ready now to play shortstop."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that Jeter will not play until this weekend at the earliest, and without a roster move, Betemit would have his chance to show what he can do. Unless they uproot Alex Rodriguez from third base, the Yankees do not have another player who would slot as a shortstop.

"I think he's moved much better, and I saw an improvement all during the spring from Wilson," Girardi said. "I think a big part of it is he's in shape. His range is better, and he's played all over for us. He did a pretty good job. We'll evaluate every day and see where we're at.

"We'll just go day by day and see how Jete's progressing. If we have to go to an alternate plan, we're willing to do that."

Betemit has never seen more than 25 games of duty at shortstop in any big league season, having made the biggest leap in his transition to third base back in 2005 with the Braves. But he had plenty of reps at all four infield positions this spring, working with Yankees third-base coach Bobby Meacham, who managed against Betemit in Class A.

Because of Betemit's versatility, the Yankees opted not to bring a traditional middle infielder north, despite having prospect Alberto Gonzalez in camp, along with Bernie Castro, Cody Ransom and the since-released Chris Woodward.

"I saw him when he was a kid and I thought he was going to be a real good shortstop in the big leagues, years ago," Meacham said. "We worked with him this spring to try to get back to that form that he had, being a shortstop. He's worked very hard."

Meacham believes that Betemit has grown out of shortstop physically and probably could not be an everyday shortstop at the big league level, showing less lateral movement and agility than a prototypical upper-echelon infielder.

Still, Meacham said Betemit can "absolutely" fill in without hurting the Yankees for a few days or a week.

"The fact that he knows how to play the position, that's the main thing to me," Meacham said. "He's a shortstop who happened to play third the last couple of years. He's learned infield positions and all the ins and outs, the little detailed parts of the game that help you play the position. He's a perfect fit for us to fill in for a couple of days."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.