By: Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
Christian Bethancourt, Catcher, Atlanta Braves
2014 season (Minors): 91 G, 243 AB, .283 BA, 8 HR, 48 RBI, 7 SB, .716 OPS
2014 season (Majors): 31 G, 113 AB, .248 BA, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 1 SB, .548 OPS
Since the mid-1990’s, catcher has almost always been a constant for the Atlanta Braves. With Javy Lopez manning the backstop position for 10 years from 1995-2005, and Brian McCann following him as the starter from 2006-2013, Atlanta not only always had one of the better hitting catchers in the league at the time, but also catchers who the club could rely on to handle the fantastic rotations they had throughout the years.
For a while over the past two seasons, and especially when McCann bolted to New York last season, it looked as though they may have their man in Evan Gattis. But while Gattis could mash with the best of them, it was clear the club didn’t have confidence in him behind the plate and they traded him to Houston for prospects this winter. While Gattis’ questionable catcher skills were a big reason he was jettisoned, the presence of prospect Christian Bethancourt was another, and the timing was right to give the 23-year-old the chance in 2015.
Let’s start with the good stuff. As noted earlier, the Braves heavily judge their catchers on what they do behind the plate, and that’s where Bethancourt shines in most aspects. Throughout his time in the Minors he has shown an unbelievable arm — throwing out at least 30 percent of base stealers in each year — and overall strong defensive skills. The Braves and manager Fredi Gonzalez are using Spring Training to get him in tune with what they hope can be a strong rotation this season, if healthy.
The club brought in veterans A.J. Pierzynski and John Buck as potential insurance, but also to help mentor Bethancourt as he gets familiar with handling a Major League staff. There will be bumps along the way, but for now, that is the main focus of Bethancourt’s development as far as the Braves are concerned.
As for the hitting, it’s not fair to expect much from a 23-year-old catcher with a lot on his plate, but the Braves are confident the offense will come. He is currently a very overly aggressive hitter, striking out 26 times in 113 at-bats with the Braves last year and never managing an OBP higher than .308 at any level higher than Single-A. He isn’t expected to hit .300 at the bottom of an already questionable Braves order, but he does have above-average power and speed for someone at his position, and the power could continue to develop. He hit 13 homers and stole 11 bases in 90 games in Double-A in 2013, and had eight homers and seven steals in 91 games at Triple-A before being called up last season. While the speed may not last throughout the years, he’s certainly capable of reaching double digits in home runs and steals in his first full year at the big league level, especially if he can just keep his average around .250 (which he did in a small sample size of 34 games last season).
Bethancourt was ranked at or around the top 100 prospects in baseball for the past few years for a reason, and with McCann playing in the Bronx and Gattis now with the Astros, the path is clear for him to begin to establish himself as not only the Braves’ catcher of the future, but also of the present in 2015.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.