In an Atlanta Braves system that’s loaded with pitching prospects and infield prospects, 21-year-old Christian Bethancourt is an especially valuable prospect.
Signed by the Braves in March 2008 as a 16-year-old, the Panama native made his stateside debut in 2009, when he split time between the organization’s rookie-level affiliates in the Gulf Coast and Appalachian Leagues. Overall, he batted .277/.342/.446 with 19 extra-base hits, 27 RBI, eight stolen bases and 38/17 K/BB in 46 games.
Bethancourt made his full-season debut the following year as an 18-year-old for Low-A Rome in the South Atlantic League. Playing in 108 games, the right-handed hitter batted .251/.276/.331 with 24 extra-base hits, 11 stolen bases and 62/14 K/BB. He also established himself as one of the better young catchers in the game by throwing out 39 percent of baserunners.
Still an incredibly raw player both at and behind the plate, the Braves had Bethancourt repeat Low-A to open to the 2011 season to refine his blocking skills and overall approach at the plate. And after batting .303/.323/.430 in 54 games, the 19-year-old received a promotion to High-A Lynchburg. Between 99 games at both levels, Bethancourt batted .289/.304/.385 with 24 extra-base hits and 62/11 K/BB—he only drew two more walks than he had stolen bases over the course of the season.
Despite his struggles to develop at the plate, his defense noticeably improved throughout the season as he lowered his passed-ball total and threw out 38 percent of base-stealers. A bit overaggressive at times, Bethancourt also posted his highest error total with 19 in 85 games.
But with Brian McCann seemingly in decline, the organization remained aggressive with the development of their future backstop, promoting him to Double-A Mississippi to open the 2012 season. And, as expected, the 20-year-old struggled offensively, batting .243/.275/.291 with seven extra-base hits and 45/11 K/BB in 71 games. Still, Bethancourt’s defense continued to improve, as he committed only five passed balls, lowered his error total and threw out 39 percent of hopeful base-stealers.
Unfortunately, his age-20 campaign was cut short when a broken left hand landed him on the disabled list during the second week of August.
Even though he’s a physical catcher with excellent athleticism, it’s Bethancourt’s arm that gives him a chance to be an elite catcher in the major leagues. However, the 6’2”, 220-pounder will have to improve in all other facets of his game to reach that ceiling.
With a plus arm and excellent catch-and-throw skills that generate sub-1.8-second pop times, it’s no surprise that he’s gunned down 38 percent of base-stealers over his five-year minor league career.
He made strides in improving both his blocking and receiving skills this past season after receiving criticism during his 2011 campaign. He still has a tendency to pick at balls in the dirt rather than using his agility to shift his body and effectively block them, though it’s definitely gotten better.
However, it’s important to remember that he’s still young and has been handed aggressive minor league assignments year after year, so, naturally, he’s going to be raw.
While Bethancourt’s defense gives the organization plenty to dream on, the right-handed hitter’s development has been repeatedly impeded by his offensive approach. At the moment, his best-case projection is a defense-oriented, bottom-of-the-order catcher.
Although his strikeout totals aren’t outrageous due to advanced hand-eye coordination, he religiously chases offerings out of the strike zone—often in hitter’s counts—and therefore makes a significant number of weak outs. He struggles to drive the ball with a semblance of consistency, which is reflected by his lack of extra-base hits.
Equally concerning is the fact that he’s seemingly unable to draw walks, as he's coaxed only 64 free-passes in 358 career minor league games. Since entering full-season leagues in 2010, Bethancourt has registered 14, 11 and 11 walks in each of the last three seasons, respectively. For purposes of relative comparison, he's stolen 30 bases in that same time period.
After playing in only 71 games in 2012 due to the fractured hand, he’ll presumably open the 2013 season back at Double-A. Considering that it will only be his age-21 season, Bethancourt luckily still has time on his side. However, with Brian McCann’s days at the Braves’ catcher seemingly running its course, the organization’s heir to the throne will need to start making more immediate adjustments across the board.