The Braves’ former No. 1 prospect, Christian Bethancourt, was sent a strong message when the struggling catcher was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett on Monday and told to work on improving his overall defense. He was informed Sunday night after the Braves flew from New York to Boston.
“We made a group decision and I think it’s best for the kid to go down there right now and get some playing time,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who discussed the situation with coaches and assistant general manager John Coppolella on the flight to Boston.
“We think the world of him. I think he’s still in our plans in the future. He’s a major league catcher, but right now he’s not getting much playing time and we need him to play a little bit more.”
The Braves called up well-traveled catcher Ryan Lavarnway, 27, whose contract was purchased from Gwinnett. Lavarnway, who spent parts of the past four seasons with Boston, joined the Braves at Fenway Park on Monday afternoon and was in uniform for the opener of a two-game series against the Red Sox.
Bethancourt, who turned 23 last month, was hitting .208 (21-for-104) with one homer, nine RBIs and a .231 OBP and .528 OPS in 29 games. He ranked No. 66 out of 82 qualifiers in catchers’s ERA (4.50), according to ESPN Stats. Catcher’s ERA takes into account various defensive statistics.
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He had the third-most passed balls (five) among National League catchers and was tied for fourth in errors (three) despite playing in less than half of his team’s games. He had a passed ball that let in a run in Sunday’s 10-8 loss to the Mets, the latest in a series of recent mistakes.
“He won’t be forgotten,” president of baseball operations John Hart said. “We’re sending him out with a very clear plan.”
Hart likened it to the the Royals sending down third baseman Mike Moustakas in May 2014 or the Cardinals sending down second baseman Kolten Wong in April 2014, both of whom came back soon and played important roles.
“He’s not the first guy to go down and come back up and have a stellar career, and he won’t be the last guy,” Gonzalez said. “There’s no timetable, but I think we’ll eventually get him back here and he’ll help us win some ballgames.”
Asked what Bethancourt needed to work on, Gonzalez said: “I think he just needs to work on catching. But it’s hard to work those things out here at the big league level and try to produce. We feel like he’s a guy who’s going to help us win in the future and going down there is going to be OK. It’s going to be good for him, as long as he has his head right and wants to do it. I think he’ll come back sooner than later.”
Bethancourt had three errors in his past 11 games and also had two passed balls and a catcher’s interference in the past week that cost the Braves’ runs, including a passed ball in the first inning of Sunday’s 10-8 loss to the Mets. He was sent down after that game, and the announcement was made at noon Monday.
Bethancourt was expected to be the Braves’ primary catcher this season. But he lost playing time in the first weeks of the season to then hot-hitting veteran A.J. Pierzynski, 38, who was signed as a free agent last winter to serve not only as a mentor and backup, but provide an option if Bethancourt struggled.
“I was surprised, obviously,” Pierzynski said of the Bethancourt move. “I feel bad. You never want to see somebody struggle or have to go up and down (from the minors). We’ve all done it, but it stinks for the person, for Bet. We did a lot. He’s a good kid, he’s got a lot of talent, so hopefully he’ll go down and figure it out and get back here quickly.
“I wish him nothing but the best. I’ve wished him nothing but the best from the first day I got here, and that hasn’t changed. Just want him to get back and become the player he can become, that’s the most important thing right now.”
Pierzynski had started 37 of the team’s 63 games and was batting .273 with four homers and 21 RBIs, a .314 OBP and .727 OPS before Monday. His stats fell of dramatically in May after a sizzling April, but the veteran has received high marks from pitchers for his game-calling ability.
In parts of two seasons with the Braves, plus one at-bat in 2013, Bethancourt has a .228 average with six doubles, one homer, 18 RBIs and a .252 OBP and .536 OPS in 61 games (222 plate appearances).
After former Braves general manager Frank Wren and his top assistants were fired in October, the new front-office regime, led by Hart and Coppolella, made it clear during the spring that Bethancourt would not be given the primary catching job and would have to earn it.
Larvarnway, 27, hit .268 (11-for-41) with two homers, eight RBIs and an .851 OPS in 12 games for Gwinnett, after starting the season with Baltimore’s major league team. He cleared waivers and was outrighted to the minor leagues by the Orioles after going 3-for-28 (.107) in 10 games.
Lavarnway exercised his right to become a free agency, then signed a minor league deal with the Braves on May 30. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder also plays first base and spent parts of the 2011-2014 seasons with the Red Sox, batting .201 with five homers and 34 RBIs in 97 games.