NASHVILLE — It’s always been about potential with Christian Bethancourt, but now the Braves seem more open than every to moving from a project that has yet to reach his perceived ceiling, including putting him on the trading block.
"What would happen if we put this guy out there? I think there is probably a value if we so chose," John Hart, Atlanta’s president of baseball operations said Tuesday during the MLB Winter Meetings at Gaylord Opryland Resort.
"We haven’t crossed that bridge yet, brought anybody in. But these are all options that we’re considering for a very talented guy."
They may be in a position to cross it now, as minutes after addressing the media, Braves brass reportedly added free-agent Tyler Flowers with a two-year, $5.3 million deal.
Atlanta had already addressed the catching position once this offseason, signing A.J. Pierzynski, to one-year, $3 million deal in November. But there are certain realities facing the soon-to-be 39 year old.
"We really like A.J. and what he brought, but also know that Father Time ticks along," Hart said.
Brought on to be Bethancourt’s mentor last season, he ended up taking his job and hitting .300/.339/.430 in 436 plate appearances with a 2.1 WAR, while the 24-year-old Bethancourt, hit .200/.225/.290 with a minus-0.3 WAR and split time between Atlanta and Triple-A Gwinnett.
His defense continued to be a problem, too, as he had eight passed balls, including seven in his final 29 starts.
Pierzynski had a bounce-back season in his first year with the Braves after hitting a combined .264 in 2013 and ’14, and while he had a profound effect on the majors’ youngest pitching staff, they aren’t looking to him to be primary backstop in ’16.
"This guy’s a beast. He’s yoked. He’s ready to go," Hart said. "We don’t want to catch A.J. 110 games."
On a stated list of offseason needs that include a right-handed center field to pair with Michael Bourn, a versatile infielder, catcher is "probably third down on the priority list," per Hart.
"It’s not a gigantic catching market that you’re jumping up and down about," Hart said.
Of the five major free agents, Carlos Corporan, Tyler Flowers, Jeff Mathis, Michael McKenry and Jordan Pacheco, Flowers was the only one with a positive WAR (0.4) last season.
A career .223/.289/.376 hitter, the Braves were said to be a finalist for Flowers’ services, along with the Rays and Yankees. Atlanta was also rumored to have asked the Indians about Roberto Perez, who appeared in 70 games last season.
With Bethancourt out of minor league options, Atlanta has at least discussed the possibility of keeping him despite their adding to their catching options at the major league level.
"We’ve talked about it, if we get another catcher, are we capable of carrying three," Hart said. "Is there a level of versatility for the guys that we get?"
Flowers has experienced at first base, but it’s limited with just 37 innings and all of five since 2012, and of the other in-house option with major league experience in Ryan Lavarnway — who hit .227 in 27 games with the Braves — he’s played 25 innings at first.
If versatility was the focus, it won’t necessarily be met with either of those options. So where does that leave Bethancourt?
Once seen a can’t-miss prospect, there was already stated wavering on him. Now that the Braves have gone out and signed Flowers and Pierzynski in the past month, Bethancourt’s future in Atlanta becomes that much more in doubt.