Braves prospect Bethancourt could challenge for 2015 starting job

Christian Bethancourt has been rated as a top-10 catcher prospect in each of the past three years.

Top-tier catcher prospects typically bubble up to the surface. By talent or, occasionally, by necessity, the Buster Poseys and Carlos Santanas of the baseball world find their way to the major league level one way or another. They, at the very least, get their shot.

Christian Bethancourt, who has been rated as a top-10 prospect at catcher for the past three years in the Braves organization, may not ever be in that class, but he is counting on those favorable odds to hold up.

It’s a taxing and somewhat transient career behind the plate, as evidenced by just three catchers — A.J. Pierzynski, Yadier Molina and former Braves star Brian McCann — logging 400 or more plate appearances in each of the past five seasons, the lowest total of any everyday position over that stretch. Of those three, only Molina, St. Louis’ five-time All-Star, is poised to make it six straight in the same locale. Injuries, position changes and decreases in production have played their respective parts in cutting down those numbers; keeping a catcher around for an extended period of time, especially if there are young and talented prospects rising through the farm system, isn’t always the easiest (or cheapest) of tasks for an organization.

When Pierzynski moved on to Texas last season, it opened the door in Chicago for former highly-rated prospect Tyler Flowers (a Braves draftee in 2005) and rookie Josh Phegley. McCann’s departure, a free agent jump worth $85 million over the next five seasons, provides similar opportunities for those previously behind him in the Braves organizational depth chart — notably for, but not exclusively limited to, Bethancourt.

The once-assumed heir apparent in the event of McCann taking his talents to the free agent market has hit a potential obstacle, though.

It’s a 6-foot-4, 260-pound obstacle. Its name is Evan Gattis.

This is a pivotal season behind the plate for the Braves organization, both at the big-league level and, presumably, at Triple-A Gwinnett. The results could help lay out a road map for how the organization goes about replacing McCann, a five-time Silver Slugger Award winner who will likely be headed to the Braves Hall of Fame one day, for the long term. There’s little reason to believe the decision has already been made internally. There’s still so much at play.

Bethancourt’s ’14 performance, particularly offensively, will matter. Gattis’ first year handling of the starter’s role will matter. If Gattis, whose winding road to the majors became one of the best stories of the 2013 season and an unlikely 23rd-round coup for Atlanta’s front office, can develop into a consistent middle-of-the-lineup threat — he hit 21 home runs in just 382 plate appearances as a rookie last season — while handling a young pitching staff, would the Braves lock him up and possibly move Bethancourt? Will Gattis’ performance even matter if the 22-year-old’s bat comes around to match his superior defensive gifts?

Both players are, on a very broad, macro level, opposites of one another: offense vs. defense, the out-of-nowhere candidate juxtaposed with the longtime top prospect. For his part, Bethancourt says he’s in camp down at Lake Buena Vista to put in the time, to challenge for the job as soon as possible, even if he’s expected to be one year away. Better to get a head-start on making impressions.

"First thing when you get to spring training, you go out to make the team. I’m working on it. I’m working hard every single day," Bethancourt, who signed with the Braves as a 16-year-old amateur free agent out of Panama in 2008, said a few weeks ago in the team’s clubhouse. "And if I don’t make it, what, I’m going to the minors and still working on it. I’m just looking for a chance."

Despite his talents and the opening left behind by McCann, the Braves appear to be set at catcher this season. Outside of Gattis, veterans Gerald Laird and Ryan Doumit are also going to be available on the 25-man roster for catching duties. Add in bench option Joey Terdoslavich, who received 95 MLB plate appearances in 2013, getting some reps in catcher’s gear this spring, and Bethancourt is in position to receive a full season’s worth of at-bats in the minors to hone his offensive game. After spending the past two seasons at Double-A Mississippi, Gwinnett appears to be the next step. He’ll need to keep making substantial strides, though.

Braves prospect Christian Bethancourt grades out as one of the top defensive catchers in the minor leagues.

If there’s ever been a scouting report that didn’t mention Bethancourt’s defense — the explosive arm, especially; he’s drawn lofty comparisons in that regard to the likes of 13-time Gold Glove winner Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez — it’s never seen the light of day. The bat has always been another story.

Standing 6-foot-2 with an athletic frame, one that he added nearly 20 pounds of weight to over the past year or so, he passes the eye test. The statistical litmus test? That leaves something to be desired, and he knows it. Perhaps thanks to his defensive value, Bethancourt has moved up through the Braves farm system even when the numbers weren’t necessarily there to warrant a promotion. In 2011, he moved from High-A Lynchburg to Double-A Mississippi despite posting an on-base percentage of just .277 and hitting one home run in 175 plate appearances. He responded to Double-A competition with more struggles at the plate, logging a career-worst .566 OPS. Atlanta kept him in Mississippi for the entirety of the Double-A season (he got a September call-up to the majors, striking out in his only plate appearance) and it paid off:

Generally speaking, he doubled his offensive production. It was a crucial step for a player that had put together two consecutive disappointing seasons, a player that had started to look one-dimensional. He’s starting to grasp the intracacies of hitting. That puts him back on track to challenge for a MLB job, something he might already be doing in another organization — 14 catchers posted below-average offensive numbers last season (300-plus plate appearances, less than 100 wRC+), so plenty would take a chance on Bethancourt. The Braves haven’t had to yet. But if he keeps applying himself offensively, something he seems committed to, he could force the team’s hand.

"I’ve got to make contact with the ball, good contact with the ball. Hit the ball hard," he said. "I’ve got to focus on my balance and things like that. Don’t lose my focus or my approach at the plate. Things like that … I’ve been looking to get better the past few years. The hard work paid off last year. And it feels really good."

It’s a long list of checkpoints, but Bethancourt should have time to work things out in Mississippi and/or Gwinnett this season; it makes little sense (competitively or financially) to promote him just to sit behind Gattis, Laird and Doumit in 2014. He needs at-bats more than most top prospects; the more practice the better. If all goes well, he and Gattis could be entering a position battle in 2015.

For now, it’s Gattis’ job to lose. A successful season from the 27-year-old sophomore catcher could solidfy that fact. But Bethancourt, like so many other highly-touted catcher prospects, is eventually going to get an opportunity, either in Atlanta or elsewhere.