LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – He's still just 21 years old, but it seems we’ve heard, read or written the praises of Braves catching prospect Christian Bethancourt for an awfully long time. Particularly since he’s yet to play an inning above Double-A and has hit 14 homers and posted a .297 on-base percentage in more than 1,400 minor-league plate appearances.
He practically oozes baseball talent and is flat-out gifted defensively. No debate on that. And this spring Bethancourt looks stronger, a little more muscular, and noticeably improved at the plate, albeit so far mostly in batting practice (he’s 2-for-8 with a double and a walk in four games).
But the fact remains, the Panamanian phenom still has plenty of work to do before anyone can say he’s ready to hit major league pitching and potentially replace Brian McCann, who is eligible for free agency after the 2013 season.
If some folks in the organization have been subtle in how they express to Bethancourt his shortcomings for concern of discouraging the Braves' top-rated position-player prospect, well, that wasn’t the case over the winter in the Dominican Republic.
“I think he had a wakeup call playing in the Dominican,” said Eddie Perez, Braves bullpen coach and former catcher. “He wasn’t doing that good and I guess the owner called him and said, ‘Look, if you don’t start doing better you’ll be going home.’”
Perez demonstrated what he perceived to be Bethancourt’s attitude during similar struggles in the past.
“But I’m Christian Bethancourt,” Perez said, then paraphrased the Dominican team owner’s response to that. “No, we need to win games.” And Perez also imagined how Bethancourt took that response: “Oh, [expletive].”
Said Perez: “Then he started doing good.”
Bethancourt only hit .224 (13-for-58) with no homers and three RBIs for Licey in the Dominican League, where he was one of the youngest players. But he made progress on adjustments to his stance and approach at the plate. It was work begun last year at Double-A Mississippi, but interrupted by stints on the disabled list for an early season hamstring injury and a season-ending broken hand.
It was a career-worst season offensively for Bethancourt, who hit .243 with just eight extra-base hits (two homers) and a .566 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 288 plate appearances. But after working with minor league hitting instructor Don Long and others, Bethancourt reported to his third major league spring training better prepared to hit.
“He’s still got to learn to do some things, but he’s in better position,” Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. “Last year at spring training you could beat him inside easily. He was turned in, couldn’t get to balls.”
The Braves believe the hitting ability is there. They've seen it at lower levels in the minors and in the Arizona Fall League, where Bethancourt hit .306 with five homers in 72 at-bats in 2011.
Bethancourt has worked since last summer on his alignment and staying back on pitches. In batting practice, the right-handed hitter has shown more discipline this spring, driving balls up the middle and to the opposite field instead of pulling everything.
“Last year I was side to side, going this way and that way,” he said, demonstrating how he rotated too much. “I just started to go back a little bit and try to get to the ball, get quicker. It’s been good so far. I’m going to start doing it (more in games).”
Despite his anemic offense last season, he still got invited to play in the Futures Game in Kansas City, a nod to his defensive reputation. It’s a rep he’s earned, gunning down baserunners with quick, strong, accurate throws. He threw out 39 percent of would-be base stealers in Double-A, where he was one of the youngest players at that level.
His arm is as strong as you are likely to see behind the plate, and Bethancourt is unusually quick and athletic, especially for a catcher who’s grown to 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds (don’t believe the listed 190). Just as important, he’s worked on communicating with pitchers -- he speaks fluent English – and calling a game, essential skills that often go overlooked when rating catchers.
Pitchers Julio Teheran and J.R. Graham are the only Braves prospects rated ahead of him, according to Baseball America. But prospects ratings don't guarantee anything.
The Braves signed veteran backup catcher Gerald Laird to a two-year contract, and if they don’t re-sign McCann they will need another to take over as primary catcher next season or at least share duties with Laird.
They will also need a backup to Laird for the first two or three weeks this season while McCann completes his rehab from October shoulder surgery. Journeyman Matt Pagnozzi or 26-year-old slugging prospect Evan Gattis seems more likely for that early season backup assignment than Bethancourt, but the Braves say it’s still wide open.
The 2013 season will probably go a long way in deciding next year’s catching situation, if the Braves don't re-sign McCann. If Bethancourt makes significant strides, he could be ready to take over or piggyback with Laird in 2014. If Bethancourt doesn’t progress enough or the Braves believe Gattis can be a serviceable-or-better defensive catcher, they could opt to have him team with Laird for a year.
“This year I think he’s ready to play in the major leagues,” Perez said of Bethancourt. “He’s still young, and to be a catcher you have to do other things. You’re the leader out here. You have to take care of (young teammates), the pitcher and everybody. So he needs to learn a lot. But he’s different now. He’s close. Very close. I mean, I don’t mind having him up here (now).”
Bethancourt was criticized in the past for relying on athleticism too much behind the plate, such as when he’d try to back-hand balls instead of sliding over to block them. He has worked a lot with roving instructor Joe Breeden, Perez and others to improve in that area.
Perez said after Bethancourt caught Tim Hudson once at 2012 spring training, the veteran pitcher indicated to Perez that he wasn’t overly impressed by the much-hyped prospect.
“First day he caught him (this year), Huddy came to me and said, ‘Now he’s ready,’” Perez said.
When Bethancourt caught Hudson’s start Monday against the Mets, he threw out two baserunners and blocked two bounced pitches far off the plate.
“He was really good back there,” Hudson said. “He bounced around. I threw some 58-foot curveballs with guys on base, and he sucked them up. He was challenged today with me. I probably wasn’t the easiest to catch today, but he did as good a job as he could…. He’s good. He’s only going to get better.”
Bethancourt said he's not looking too far ahead, just at the daily work in camp and improving in 2013.
“This is my third year (in major league spring training), and I learned a lot my first two," he said. "I learned from B-Mac and David Ross. I want to keep doing the same, just learning.... I go wherever they send me, just go play baseball. It doesn’t matter if it’s low-A, high-A, Double-A Triple-A, I’m just going to play.”