Christian Bethancourt made his 2017 Cactus League debut yesterday, going one inning and allowing no hits and no runs, while touching 96 mph. Well, that was his pitching debut; on Monday he made his hitting debut, starting at DH and going 0-for-1 with a walk. Welcome to the brave new world where the Padres are preparing the same player to be their backup catcher, fifth outfielder, and a key middle reliever, all at the same time.
Once upon a time, in the Atlanta system, Bethancourt was a good catching prospect. He ranked as high as 87th on our top 101 prospect list before 2014, always hitting a little and flashing a rocket arm that caused scouts to project him as a high-end major league defender. It turned out that defensive projection missed that Bethancourt is a poor pitch framer, aggregating -7.3 FRAA in about a full seasonâ€™s worth of playing time over the past three seasons between Atlanta and San Diego. Heâ€™s also hit a meager .223/.253/.318 in that time span, and while heâ€™s only 25 and catcher development can be weird, conventionally speaking Christian Bethancourt is perilously close to being no more than fringe backup. Except he still has that rocket arm…
Bethancourt took the mound for the first time last season on May 31st. He started the game catching, moved to left field when Hector Sanchez entered to catchâ€”as an athletic-enough backup catcher, heâ€™d already been taking on the outfield cornersâ€”and then took the mound in the 8th with the Padres down 16-4. Bethancourt was more or less terrible in terms of outcome, allowing two walks and a hit batsman, and needing to be rescued after 26 pitches by fellow position player pitching Alexi Amarista. But he was sitting in the mid-90s and touched 96, gaudy enough velocity that it was the headline story in Emma Baccellieriâ€™s What You Need To Know the next morning here on BP. A few weeks later, Bethancourt pitched again in a blowout, this time throwing a scoreless inning and even recording a strikeout. There were a few whispers about what a shame it was that Bethancourt was just good enough at hitting and catching the baseball to not get a shot to pull a Kenley Jansen, and then the story was laid to rest. For the time being.
Padres general manager AJ Preller is a mad scientist, and mad scientists enjoy experiments. So the Padres started having Bethancourt throw bullpens after he was shut down for the seasonâ€”not with the idea of fully converting him to pitching, but with the idea of having him as a backup catcher/short reliever/occasional outfielder. By the end of October, he was topping out at 97 against live hitters in instructs. In a winter ball stint in Panama, he was up to 98 and flashing a hard slider/cutter. He reported to camp this spring and started taking one of every three workouts as a relief pitcher.
As roster spots have become more valuable in the age of large pitching staffs and specialized roles, teams have attempted to combine a pitcher and hitter into one roster spot occasionally. Fringe outfielder Brooks Kieschnick picked up pitching at age-30 in the minors, and threw 96 innings of relief with the Brewers in 2003 and 2004, while also frequently pinch-hitting and starting four games at DH and three in left. Micah Owings never played the field in the majors, but was a frequent pinch-hitter, played the outfield corners and first in the minors, and hit a more-than-healthy .283/.310/.502 for his MLB career. (Given his hitting ability relative to his pitching ability, itâ€™s odd with the value of historical retrospect that Owings never became a position player who occasionally pitched instead of the opposite.) Travis Wood, another one of the best-hitting pitchers in the majors (though now sadly marooned in the American League), made three appearances in left for the 2016 Chicago Cubs. Even the Padres had tried a lower-key version of the Bethancourt maneuver on the Triple-A level with Jeff Francoeur in 2014, giving him eight pitching appearances in blowouts over the course of the season, while also trying to convert former MLB outfielder Jason Lane to pitching. Their initial efforts met with critical success, but limited impact on the MLB field: Lane made it back to the majors, but only for three games, Francoeur has been called on just once to pitch since returning to the majors.
Assuming Bethancourt works out betterâ€”or at least more multifunctionallyâ€”than his recent predecessors, it seems natural that teams will seek to copycat his role. In the spirit of staying ahead of the curve, I sought to identify a handful of players I could see filling a combination pitcher/hitter role in the majors if their development went a certain way. Generally, I was looking for athletic position players with strong arms (a history of pitching as an amateur certainly doesnâ€™t hurt), pitchers who can rake, and a pair of two-way studs who have yet to be fully defined. This list is, of course, incomplete; it would take tens of thousands of words to list every two-way possibility from Luken Baker to Tyler Pill.
Bobby Dalbec, 3B, Boston Red Sox: Dalbec was, in all honesty, the genesis of this article. When writing him up for the upcoming BP Futures Guide, I realized that he has enormous â€œbust potentialâ€ in terms of being a hitter, as a likely first baseman with a questionable hit tool. Those players have had a tough time finding bench roles in the majors, and often end up as Triple-A or Asian league journeymen if theyâ€™re not good enough for the majors, even if just by a little. How would a player like that add enough utility to become a valuable MLB bench piece? 50 or 60 low-leverage innings would do the trick; thatâ€™s about what the eighth guy on your pitching staff could reasonably expect to see. Dalbec, more than any other hitting prospect currently in organized baseball, could probably be developed the easiest to provide mediocre pitching, having been a star pitcher at Arizona from 2014-16. Youâ€™d just have to sell him on the endeavor.
Joey Gallo, 3B/1B/OF, Texas Rangers: Gallo probably still projects as too good of a hitter to try thisâ€”for now. Despite some struggles in the high-minors and cups of coffee in the majors that now put him in the Dalton Pompey Zone of players who are neither prospects nor established major-leaguers, Gallo still projects to be a 80-grade power force at some corner or another, bolstered by another 80-grade tool in the field, his arm. That 80 arm played just as well off the mound in high schoolâ€”Gallo ran old number one up to 98 when he was a part-time pitcher in high schoolâ€”and at the very least heâ€™ll pick up Mitch Morelandâ€™s old spot on the Rangers as the position player most capable of looking like a pitcher in a blowout situation. Heâ€™d probably need to struggle at this level for a few more years to make this more than fodder for April Foolâ€™s jokes, but keep it in the back of your mind if heâ€™s still flirting with the Mendoza line in 2019.
Trey Ball, LHP, Boston Red Sox: Ball, on the other hand, is struggling exactly the right amount to make alternate options for his future career path a conversation. The seventh-overall pick in 2013 has yet to make it out of A-ball, and without some of the excuses that might be compelling for a slow timetable. When drafted, he was more projection on the pitching side than current reality, and the projection never turned into real progression. Heâ€™s been both pretty healthy and bad. Yet back in the day, Ball was also a first-round prospect as an outfielder, with former BP prospect writer Chris Crawford going so far to say he was a better hitting prospect than a pitching prospect. Another former BP staffer, Marc Normandin, recently suggested that itâ€™s time for Ball to pick the bat back up. If Ball can hack at as an outfielder, he hasnâ€™t been so bad at pitching that a team shouldnâ€™t be willing to let him soak 40 meaningless innings.
Jorge Alfaro, C, Philadelphia Phillies: Unlike the rest of this list, Alfaro has no history as a two-way player. What he does have is a remarkably similar skill grouping to Christian Bethancourt. Alfaro is an unusually athletic catcher who at times has projected to other positions. He has a plus-plus or better arm behind the plate, and although he improved greatly in another crack at Double-A in 2016, Alfaro has struggled with many other aspects of catching. Heâ€™s never quite hit well enough to quell concerns that it might just not come together fully. I have no idea what Alfaro would look like on the mound, and Iâ€™m not sure anyone does unless heâ€™s one of those guys who goes out to the mound four hours before the game horsing around. I do know that heâ€™s got more than enough arm strength and athleticism to try it, and if heâ€™s hovering in backup catcherdom in a few years, itâ€™d be fascinating to see him try.
Brendan McKay, LHP/1B, University of Louisville: Weâ€™ve got quite a lot of notes on both sides of Brendan McKayâ€™s game from Steve Givarz in yesterdayâ€™s Notes From The Field. Steve projects McKay to be a middle-of-the-rotation lefty pitching prospect and a plus hit and power first base prospect. I suspect heâ€™ll be cast as a starting pitching prospect only by draft time, because most two-way guys end up there if itâ€™s a close call; there are few things baseball men love doing more than blowing up a left-handed pitching prospect. But why canâ€™t McKay be both? Will four at-bats DHing in the low-minors really impact his development as a pitcher? Is the time in the stands charting really that important? It feels like the answer to these questions is â€œwe donâ€™t knowâ€ and the inherently conservative outlook of Baseball: The Institution and its member front offices is most of whatâ€™s preventing some enterprising team from trying to develop a two-way star.
Shohei Otani, RHP/DH, Nippon Ham Fighters: You didnâ€™t think we were going to make it through this article without talking about Shohei Otani, did you? The frequent concern of the Effectively Wild podcast is clearly the best player not currently signed to a major-league organization, and arguably the best player not in the majors, period. And unlike MLB orgs would have done had he signed in the States out of high school, the Nippon Ham Fighters have developed Otani as a two-way player. And what a star heâ€™s become. The 22-year-old projects as a true MLB ace on the mound, but he was also arguably the best hitter in Japanese baseball last year, posting a monster .322/.416/.588 triple-slash. Naturally a right fielder, Nippon hasnâ€™t let him play the outfield since 2014 given the enormous value of his arm, yet he posted his best pitching season in 2016 while also demolishing the Pacific League as Nipponâ€™s regular DH. Evaluators are torn on whether his hitting ability will translate to MLB, yet purely from a statistical point of value, his hitting translations are nearly as good as his pitching translations. Heâ€™ll probably be transitioning to MLB within the next three seasons, and itâ€™d be an awful shame if he wasnâ€™t allowed to attempt to repeat his combined exploits at baseballâ€™s highest levels. Itâ€™ll require an American League team with a flexible manager and a front office and ownership that isnâ€™t horribly risk averse. Yet the possibilities both on and off the field for a Japanese-born version of Parisian Bob Caruthers in 21st-century baseball would be so enormous that it has to be worth trying.