Braves demote Bethancourt to Triple-A Gwinnett, call up Lavarnway

The Atlanta Braves’ future behind the plate remains unclear.

The organization demoted top catching prospect and expected everyday starter Christian Bethancourt to Triple-A Gwinnett on Monday following a series of defensive miscues and a lack of offensive production.

In a corresponding move, the team called up 27-year-old Ryan Lavarnway, who signed a free-agent contract in May.

"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," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told reporters Monday in Boston. "We think the world of him. I think he’s still (in) our plans of the future. I think he’s a force catching. 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."

Bethancourt’s struggles with both the bat and the glove triggered the demotion, though general manager John Hart said the franchise has a plan for the assumed future battery mate of a young rotation. The 23-year-old is hitting .208/.231/.297 with one home run in 104 plate appearances while splitting time with veteran A.J. Pierzynski — although Bethancourt’s recent numbers have improved after a slow start, he’s still been a sub-replacement level player. He ranks as one of the top defensive catchers in baseball with four defensive runs saved, but mental hiccups have led to costly passed balls in recent outings, including one that plated a run in the team’s 10-8 loss to the Mets on Sunday.

The timeline for Bethancourt’s return to the majors is unknown. Gonzalez offhandedly mentioned a timetable of 2-4 weeks.

"As long as he has his head right and as long as he wants to do it," Gonzalez said, "I think he’ll come back sooner rather than later."

With Bethancourt out of the picture, the Braves will rely on Pierzynski and Lavarnway at catcher.

Pierzynski’s numbers have fallen off dramatically since his red-hot start to his Atlanta career, and his defensive numbers annually rank at or near the bottom of the league. He’ll need to improve his recent production if he’s going to solidify the position.

Lavarnway, waived by three separate teams in December, is an intriguing player for Gonzalez & Co. His career MLB stats (.192/.246/.300, minus-1.4 WAR) are not promising, but after signing in late May he immediately contributed in Gwinnett. In 49 Triple-A plate appearances this season, he hit .268/.388/.463 with two home runs — enough to take Bethancourt’s spot on the parent club for the immediate future.

The Braves are 30-33 after dropping the weekend series to the division-leading Mets.