September 10, 2013
The Situation: With an NL East crown all but officially secured, the Braves have called up top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt to give him a taste of major-league life. While Atlanta already has three capable catchers on its roster, Bethancourt should still get a few in-game looks this month as the club begins to evaluate its potential 2014 catching corps. Perennial All-Star backstop Brian McCann appears set to test the free-agent waters this offseason, and while Evan Gattis and Gerald Laid will remain under team control, Bethancourt is considered the Braves’ catcher of the future. If McCann is wearing another uniform next season, Bethancourt’s readiness––or lack thereof––will play a key role in determining what the club does behind the plate in 2014. The Braves could potentially acquire a stopgap to give Bethancourt a year in Triple-A, rely on the Gattis/Laird combo, or roll with the 22-year-old prospect.
Background: Since signing with Atlanta for a reported $600,000 in March 2008, the Panamanian backstop has been a well-known prospect due to his elite defensive tools and raw offensive potential. Bethancourt has lost some hype over the last two years in part due to prospect fatigue, but more so because his offensive production remains unspectacular and it’s looking less likely that he’ll provide a big impact with the bat. Still, he profiles as a strong everyday catcher. Bethancourt’s glove and overall presence behind the plate have continued to progress with age. His bat, meanwhile, has shown signs of life; after hitting just .243/.275/.291 at Double-A Mississippi last season, he repeated the level this year and posted a .277/.305/.436 slash line. Bethancourt entered this season as Atlanta’s no. 5 prospect, and it’s safe to say that his stock has remained steady, if not improved a tick.
Scouting Report: Best known for his solid athleticism and loud defensive tools, Bethancourt has the ceiling of a plus everyday catcher with the floor of a glove-first reserve. His most likely outcome resides squarely in between––as a role 5 (average everyday) player. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound prospect is a serious threat to base stealers, as he’s plenty agile behind the plate and wields an elite arm. I saw him pop 1.79 while nailing a runner at second base in April, and he’ll often flash even better times. Bethancourt’s receiving, game calling, and overall leadership skills have taken steps forward this season, giving him the profile of a 60-grade (plus) defender with a bit more seasoning. One scout who evaluated Bethancourt earlier this summer called his receiving skills “good,” while adding that he “wouldn’t call it elite or anything, but it’s plus with more instruction.”
At the plate, Bethancourt has tapped into some of his raw power this season, socking 21 doubles and 12 home runs over 90 games at Double-A Mississippi. He’ll show plus raw power to the pull side––particularly in batting practice––though his approach and hit tool will likely limit its game utility, keeping it from playing to that level in games. There’s little whiff in his game (14.7 percent K) thanks to outstanding hand-eye coordination, but his ultra-aggressive approach yields few walks (4.1 percent BB rate). I also had some questions about Bethancourt’s plate coverage when I saw him in April; he was able to turn on balls with authority but had trouble with the outer half. In the end, it’s likely a 40-grade (below-average) hit tool that should play down due to his subpar on-base skills with 40-grade game power. The offensive profile itself isn’t particularly exciting––I’m thinking .240 with low on-base and 10-15 home runs––but when coupled with a plus glove and elite arm, it should be enough to make Bethancourt an everyday player. —Jason Cole
Fantasy Impact: Bethancourt is a great example of why you can’t just go down a top 100 prospect list for your fantasy draft. He is the classic player who’s better in real baseball than fantasy, as his value is tied up almost exclusively in his defense behind the dish. Luckily for him, the barrier to usability for a fantasy catcher isn’t terribly high, so he can still become an asset in the long-term. He had an offensive awakening this year, clubbing 12 home runs, which was just two fewer than his total in the last four years combined. Of course, he did it in a repeat of Double-A, so the improvements were more expected than impressive.
He has shown some stolen base capability in the minor leagues, with 11 this year, although it was more volume than skill, as he had just a 61 percent success rate. The 11 swipes tied his career-high from 2010, and he also has two seasons of eight and another with nine. If the speed translates to the big leagues—and if he gets on base often enough to use it—he will have fantasy value right away: 11 would lead all catchers in the majors (Russell Martin’s nine are leading so far).
In the short term, Bethancourt has almost no value, even in two-catcher NL-only leagues. He is on a Braves team that is loaded at the position with three guys ahead of him, although they try to avoid playing Evan Gattis there. He’ll get some burn just for the experience, but it will be too sporadic to be impactful. You can throw a dollar on him if you need a second catcher role filled and there is nothing of note on the wire, but keep your expectations low and enjoy a stolen base here and a run scored or driven in there as pure gravy. —Paul Sporer
Jason Cole is an author of Baseball Prospectus.