Busy spring begins for Braves Bethancourt

Christian Bethancourt was 19 when he first walked through the clubhouse door here at Mickey’s Wide World of Batting Practice and took a hard left into that area that serves as the room of the unknown Braves.

His spring-training priorities were pretty basic back then.

“Just me and all the non-roster invitation guys sitting in the corner trying to not talk, being quiet. Just sitting in my locker, looking around,” he remembered.

Now all of 23, a veteran of 31 major league games, Bethancourt is dressing with the big boys on the other side of the clubhouse. Both the scenery and the outlook are different over there. “You walk inside, say hi to everyone, talk to everyone, just walk into the kitchen like you belong there,” he said.

As of Saturday, 2015’s first official day of pitchers and catchers at work, Bethancourt is the man behind the plate for the Braves. It’s his job to lose. Having been labeled a tantalizing prospect since signing as a teen out of Panama, Bethancourt is being asked now to ultimately prove it. Toward that end, the Braves traded Evan Gattis last month. But they also hedged their bets when they signed a couple of just-in-case veteran catchers, A.J. Pierzynski and John Buck.

In the small sample size of his major league work — subbing for an injured Gattis for three weeks and again as a September call-up last season — Bethancourt revealed precious little that can be carried over with certainty to this year.

At the very least he earned the right to have his name pronounced as he pleases.

A curious little story made the rounds after the dismissal of general manager Frank Wren. Wren was convinced that his young catcher’s name was pronounced BET-in-court. Why? Because that’s what the organization had determined from the beginning. But in Atlanta, young Christian mentioned that it really should be BETH-in-court. Wren continued to insist that, no, his name should be as the team originally determined. The battle for control over one little consonant – and the ownership of a name – was on.

OK, so let’s get this straight: The H is not silent.

And neither, for that matter, can Bethancourt afford to be silent any longer.

The meek shall not inherit the catcher’s box.

This is hard work, the closest baseball gets to stoop labor. On the first drill of the first day of spring training, there were the Braves catchers on a back field Saturday, practicing blocking pitches in the dirt. Taking a few balls off the chest protector and mask is a catcher’s version of breakfast.

And even more than bodily toll, there are the intellectual trials, those many things, Pierzynski said, that are “more important than the physical grind of getting back there every day.”

Bethancourt’s abilities while standing alongside the plate are in question. Gattis, with 22 home runs, led the Braves in slugging percentage last year. Bethancourt has yet to hit his first major league homer. With the big club last year, he hit .248 and had 26 strikeouts in 117 plate appearances (with only three walks).

His manager, himself a former catcher, considers all that secondary to the work Bethancourt does while crouching.

If Fredi Gonzalez had to quantify this position by the importance of defense to offense, he said he’d set the ratio at about 70:30.

“Especially for a young catcher, I’m more concerned for him to be worried about the pitching staff, calling the game, blocking the baseball, stopping the running game than him hitting .280. That doesn’t concern me at this point. I’d like for him to be the leader behind the plate,” Gonzalez said.

Bethancourt has a demonstrated capacity to learn. While growing up in Panama, he said he had little use for school. “They called me the trouble guy,” he said with a smile.

Still, when the Braves brought him to the United States and it came time to focus on learning English, Bethancourt proved himself the quickest kind of study. And today he seems exceptionally comfortable with his second language.

“I promised myself to learn the language as soon as I can so I can be able to talk to the guys, order food or go anywhere I want to go without limitations,” he said.

It is impossible to imagine him any less committed to the current task at hand. As if to emphasize that, he said, “I’ve got to show them every day that I’m ready for this, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

There is a pitching staff to learn, personalities to mesh, tendencies to file away. “He’s got to trust us and we’ve got to trust him and build that good rapport,” recently-signed veteran reliever Jason Grilli said.

There are minds to pick. Presumably one of the reasons the Braves acquired the 38-year-old Pierzynski was as an additional resource for Bethancourt. Pierzynski remembered his early days in Minnesota being guided by a veteran named Tom Prince. And now it is time for him to pay that forward. “You need somebody there who understands what it’s like and how to go about your job and what to expect,” Pierzynski said.

There is no shortage of nuances for Bethancourt to grasp. Too many passed balls got by him last season (six in 260 1/3 major league innings). He can be better at framing pitches. He threw out five of 15 base-stealers while up with the Braves last year — that 33 percent slightly above the National League average — but can always get more consistent.

There is little leisure time to a catcher’s spring of awakening.

Six weeks is not a lot of time to establish a presence, nor to win the right to walk into that clubhouse like you own it.