In my look at the Braves’ catchers currently on the 40-man roster (see Evan Gattis, Gerald Laird, and Ryan Doumit) at links 1, 2, and 3 respectively), there has been a fairly common thread: these guys are mostly offense first players, defense second… or perhaps substantially lower than that in some cases.
There has been one catcher in the organization – since 2009 – who has been the polar opposite: Christian Bethancourt. It is, in fact, that glovework that has had him firmly in baseballamerica.com’s top 10 prospects list for the Braves almost every year since 2010 – now sitting as their #2 pick. Tomahawktake.com has him slightly lower – 4th – and that’s because of lingering concerns that his bat is still a bit raw… though 2013 held some signs of hope.
I have two recent ones to share. First, this one from the aforementioned baseballamerica.com:
Bethancourt is a premier athlete behind the plate, with soft hands and one of the strongest arms among minor league catchers. He threw out 39 percent of basestealers last season. He moves well and does a good job of blocking pitches in the dirt, though he tends to get lazy and backhand balls on occasion. He has improved his game-calling ability and the way he works with pitchers. Bethancourt’s bat lags considerably behind his defense, and he has hit just .253/.276/.304 above low Class A. His approach needs a lot of work, as he chases too many pitches far outside the strike zone and can’t handle sharp breaking balls. He has raw power but doesn’t tap into it because he has a flat swing. He runs well for a catcher.
Next, a similar assessment from John Sickels of minorleagueball.com, who ranked Christian 3rd on his prospects list:
Christian Bethancourt, C, Grade B-: Borderline B. … Defense looks very impressive despite some sloppy mistakes, he’s developed some power, and he’s very young. However, his approach at the plate remains very raw and major league pitchers will exploit it. Maximal outcome: Yadier Molina if you want to dream on his bat. Mid-point: Miguel Olivo. Worst case: Henry Blanco. Bethancourt will most likely have a long career but I am still very uncertain about the shape that career will take. He could be an All Star but he could also be a scrub.
This is about as confused as I’ve seen in any write-up from John, and it mimics the view of many Braves’ fans that have been watching him over the years. They just don’t know whether his bat will come around, whether he’ll be a Hall of Famer, or whether he’s trade bait. It’s still that uncertain – even after five years.
Having seen him play a bit in 2013, there are some direct observations to share. Christian hit .277 in a full (though repeated) AA season in 2013… peaking at around .293 and hitting 12 homers. That was no accident. The Southern League isn’t exactly a hitter’s paradise (though don’t tell Tommy La Stella that) with big parks and heavy Southern humid air. I saw the ball being driven off his bat last Summer – not at all with the approach I’d seen previously, which more closely resembled that of a punch-and-judy singles hitter. That was distinctly different, and suggests strongly that the .277 wasn’t a fluke. That ‘flat swing’ mentioned by baseballamerica seemed to be different now as well – I saw him drive 2 balls very deep into the outfield, plus rocket a double off the wall.
He was close to leading that Mississippi club in doubles with 21, despite playing a lot fewer games than leaders Edward Salcedo and Christian Marrero (22). He didn’t walk much in 375-ish plate appearances (16), but then he didn’t strike out much either (57). That ‘sloppiness’ in the scouting report could account for the 12 errors committed, though that’s still not an egregious number. He’ll also steal a few bases for you here and there, though that’s not a big part of his game.
But via direct observation, he had definitely changed something for the better at the plate. Now the challenge will be to find out whether he can repeat that against major league pitching this Spring, and against AAA pitching as the 2014 season begins.
That will be the question, because during Winter League play in the Dominican Republic (playing for the Licey Tigers), Bethancourt showed only occasional flashes of brilliance on offense. One game saw him go 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles and 3 RBI, but he only hit .226 overall.
There are some caveats to that: Licey carried five catchers, so Christian saw only 16 games of action scattered over almost 2 months’ time. Kinda hard to get into a groove that way. Additionally, they used thirty-nine pitchers, so on defense, Bethancourt was probably having to worry more about introducing himself every other inning than finding time for his swing.
When evaluating players, the adage “it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks” usually applies – particularly when it comes to hitting. But there is one overriding point to remember in all of this: the kid is still just 22 years old. And he did substantially improve his hitting in 2013.
Christian Bethancourt will undoubtedly be the primary AAA catcher for Gwinnett to open the 2014 season. Even if he somehow starts killing baseballs at Disney, that will be his destination… at least for now, since there’s no room in Atlanta. His minor league career has had spurts of offensive success, though it has taken some time – usually – for that success to develop at each new level. If this new plate approach truly “takes”, then that time could be shortened a bit on this trip – and it’s possible it could be necessary. My own biggest concern is on the topic of those ‘sharp breaking balls’ mentioned in the above report. Major League pitchers tend to snack on guys like that.
Let’s say that either Gattis or Laird is hit by an injury sometime during the season. Gattis is roughly an ‘average’ defensive catcher. Laird is poor. Doumit is bad. Just for the sake of run prevention, Bethancourt would be the obvious first replacement option – regardless of his bat. But then again, even if he were only to hit .220, there’s (unfortunately) reason to believe that he wouldn’t be the worst hitter on the club.
I believe that Bethancourt will start slow at AAA, but continue to improve on offense through the year, ultimately hitting around .250-.260 with a handful of homers. He’ll continue to put the ball in play often, and he’ll show progress. Even if there’s not an injury-related callup, I expect he’ll get the “real” call later in the year to help spell Gattis. Laird and Doumit are both free agents at the end of 2014, so a Gattis/Bethancourt platoon of some ilk is likely in the works for 2015.
Then we’ll find out where he really is located – hopefully closer to a Molina than a Blanco.