Christian Bethancourt has been one of the Braves’ top prospects for so long, most fans seem surprised to learn the strong-armed catcher turned 22 only in September. Some have put him out of mind or even written him off.
He’s been overshadowed in recent years by the ascent of former prospects such as Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Andrelton Simmons, and Bethancourt hasn’t been needed by a big-league club that had a seven-time All-Star catcher in Brian McCann and now turns to power-hitting Evan Gattis to replace McCann in Gattis’ second season.
But it would be a mistake to assume Bethancourt has fallen out of favor with the Braves, despite it taking longer than expected for his offense and game-calling to start catching up with his considerable defensive skills, including a rifle-like arm. He’s rated the Braves’ No. 2 prospect by Baseball America, behind pitcher Lucas Sims.
“He’s very close,” said Eddie Perez, Braves bullpen coach and former catcher. “If you asked me last year about him I would’ve said, he’s not ready yet. But I think he’s close now. He’s mature now. He talks about the game, he’s serious, he’s not fooling around like he used to. He comes out here and does his drills every day and he’s serious, and he always tells me, ‘I’m ready this year.’ He never told me that before.”
In Bethancourt’s first year above Class A in 2012, he had a career-worst season at Double-A Mississippi, batting .243 with five doubles and two homers in 71 games. Braves officials said they weren’t concerned, citing a severe hamstring strain early and other health problems late, along with the fact that he was one of the youngest players in Double-A.
He bounced back in 2013 with his best season, batting .277 with a career-highs of 21 doubles, 12 homers and 45 RBIs in 90 games. Bethancourt finished on a tear, hitting .307 with eight homers and 24 RBIs in his last 39 games to earn his first major league call-up in September.
“He’s coming fast,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “The question has always been the bat, but the bat was good in the second half of last year, and he’s had some good winter-ball seasons. It’s just a matter of time.”
Braves hitting coach Greg Walker believes the second half at Mississippi was a result of changes made before last season.
“My first year here (in 2012), Donny Long was the minor league hitting coordinator,” Walker said. “We both felt like (Bethancourt) was cutting himself off with his body, his swing was behind him and he needed to get more out in front so he could stay squared. His center field was basically right field, and he was going to get beat inside. He made an adjustment and he’s in a position now.
“He’s still got a few things that he needs to clean up, but he’s a talented kid and he’s got enough bat speed and a lot of strength.”
Bethancourt struck out in his only major league plate appearance in September, but that stint in the majors and another big-league spring training are learning opportunities, he said. The Braves moved him to the major league side of the spring-training clubhouse this year and put his locker directly next to veteran backup Gerald Laird.
“This is my fourth or fifth major league camp, and I’ve been around a lot of good guys the last five years,” Bethancourt said. “I’ve been around Brian, who was a pretty good example for me. And (David) Ross. I asked them a few questions, I see them working, I see how they move around, and that’s helped me a lot.
“Now I get to see Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit, guys with a lot of major league experience, and I’m still learning from them. (Laird and him) get to talk a lot. Baseball and joking, doing defensive work, he’s helping me a lot.”
Laird is Gattis’ backup and Doumit a first baseman/outfielder and third catcher. There’s not a spot for Bethancourt on the opening-day roster, and he’s too good a prospect to languish as a seldom-used bench player.
The Braves are expected to have him as primary catcher at Triple-A Gwinnett, a phone call and a half-hour drive from the big leagues if needed. There’s also a chance that another club could make a trade offer too good for the Braves to refuse, but that seems unlikely at least until Gattis proves himself over a full season behind the plate.
With continued development, the Braves seem confident that if they need Bethancourt he could come up and handle a pitching staff in a regular role — while making it difficult for anyone to steal bases.
Oh, yes, that arm remains a top-of-the-charts tool. Always was the first thing scouts noticed. Braves pitcher Kris Medlen said if catching doesn’t work out, he thinks Bethancourt could convert to pitcher, a la Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.
“I’ve played with Bethancourt since (rookie ball in) the Dominican Republic, like in 2009,” Braves reliever Luis Avilan said. “I played with him in Danville and Rome and Double-A, so I know how much better he’s gotten over the years. He’s so much better now. He’s a really good catcher. He’s got a power arm. I can’t even remember if one guy ever stole a base off him, at least when I was pitching.”
Bethancourt, a 6-foot-3 Panamanian, has grown to a rangy 210 pounds, and couples arm strength with a quick release and quick feet. No doubt, he’s special behind the plate.
“I think he’s going to hit,” Perez said. “But that’s not his main thing; his main thing is catching. I tell the other guys who’ve never seen him before, I say, watch this kid throw. They tell me, ‘Wow. He’s got an arm.’”
Said Gattis: “He throws the ball well, better than anybody. He needs to just relax and let his talent take over. Go play the game, don’t press. He did get his feet wet last year. Just relax and let his talent take over, and he’ll be fine.”
He recalled how Bethancourt treated him at Mississippi when Gattis was called up to Double-A in 2012.
“In Double-A he was like, ‘You want to sit here?’” Gattis said. “I didn’t even have a seat in Double-A when I got called up, and some people are like (Gattis says in deep voice) ‘This is Double-A.’ We’ve been friends, competitors, everything since I got to the organization.”
Bethancourt’s second half last season showed Braves officials that he’s started to put it together on offense.
“We all think so,” Walker said. “He’s a kid who’s got power; it’s probably going to come later, but he’s got it, it’s in there. He’s got bat speed. He’s just learning to swing the bat correctly. Now he just needs experience.”
Gattis came directly to the majors from Double-A, after hitting .258 with nine homers in 207 plate appearances at Mississippi, and .308 with 45 homers and a .923 OPS in 955 PAs over four minor league seasons. He hit .243 with 21 homers in 382 plate appearances last season and led major league rookies with 65 RBIs.
“Look at (Bethancourt’s) season last year — solid year,” Gattis said. “I kind of hit similar in Double-A, then came to the big leagues and had more power. So I think what he has will translate, as far as offense. That’s what people seem to worry about (with him). That was a great year last year.”