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Christian Bethancourt: The Upside of Underwhelming

On Monday, January 8, the Brewers signed catcher Christian Bethancourt, a 26-year-old former top prospect known for his strong throwing arm and athleticism. He happens to carry a career AAA slash line of .298/.326/.437, too, and hasn’t yet accumulated a full season’s worth of plate appearances in the big leagues.

At least that’s one way of looking at it.

Here’s another: On Monday, January 8, the Brewers signed catcher Christian Bethancourt, a washed-out former prospect whose aversion to the strike zone makes him a sub-replacement level big league hitter. His previous organization, the San Diego Padres, attempted a conversion from catcher to pitcher/bench bat in a desperate attempt to wring some value out of his one elite tool. Unfortunately, Bethancourt couldn’t identify the zone as a pitcher any better than he could as a hitter, prompting the Pads—a rebuilding club with ample time to practice patience—to abandon their two-way experiment after removing him from the 40-man roster last April.

The Brewers’ deal with Bethancourt was a minor league pact; five other catchers already occupy spots on Milwakee’s 40-man roster. Two of Manny Piña, Stephen Vogt, and Jett Bandy, all of whom are without a minor league option, figure to break camp as the club’s primary backstops. Andrew Susac, who still has one option remaining, will in all likelihood be shunted back to Colorado Springs in search of his lost luster. He’ll be pushed by Jacob Nottingham, who frankly seems like he could use an escape from the suppressive run-scoring environment in Biloxi (a .209 average in 2017 belied a solid .263 TAv and strong defensive marks). It’s hard to envision exactly where Bethancourt fits into this picture.

To understand what the Brewers see in Bethancourt, one need only head back to scouting reports from his time as a fast-rising prospect with the Atlanta Braves. In 2014, MLB.com pegged the Panamanian youngster as the 76th-best prospect in the game, close to names like Lance McCullers, Jr., Michael Conforto, and Kyle Schwarber. Bethancourt was coming off of three straight selections to the All-Star Futures Game and drew praise for his canon arm and receiving skills.

Instead of coming into his own as the heir-apparent to Brian McCann, Bethancourt faltered with Atlanta in 2015, struggling to a .200/.225/.290 line in 160 plate appearances. The season was in many ways a realization of long-standing qualms about Bethancourt’s game. He struck out in 20.6% of his plate appearances that year, but walked in only 3.1% and managed just a .090 ISO. You could miss his at-bats in a blink of an eye. Behind the dish, Bethancourt’s soft hands, quick feet, strong arm, and natural athleticism were plenty to dream on. He threw out 45 percent of would-be base stealers and posted above-average pop times with an average of 1.88 seconds (scouts have even reported figures as low as 1.62 seconds). But in spite of flashing his solid tools, periodic mental lapses contributed to eight passed balls in 42 games (357 innings) and a few eyebrow-raising errors. After the season, he was traded to San Diego in a minor swap of roster-filler.

Bethancourt never took off in San Diego, appearing in 73 games as a catcher in 2016 before switching his primary focus to the mound last season. Now he’s tasked with switching back.

The Brewers are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle here. At 6’2” and 210 pounds, Bethancourt has the body of a premium athlete and the defensive skills to be a weapon behind the plate. Milwaukee has a well-regarded catching coordinator in Charlie Greene, who will drill Bethancourt on fundamentals and framing this spring in the hopes of maximizing his natural gifts. He made strides with his game-calling before heading to the mound; his time as a pitcher could perhaps even improve his ability to strategize how to retire opposing batters.

The bat admittedly needs work, though. Bethancourt’s chase rates have been hilariously high (the catcher has swung at 44.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in the major leagues), and he’ll have to improve on his career 3.7 walk percentage. His hitting mechanics were messy in the past; they have the additional drawback of being rusty now. While he can occasionally rattle off a sweet, uppercut power stroke, his lunge-heavy approach and propensity to hack at anything close to the strike zone frequently get him out of whack and prevent him from utilizing his best swing (and therefore from reaching his solid raw power). Still, Bethancourt was a slow adjuster in his ascent through the minors and is young enough that there’s still time for some instruction to stick. He’s never really had an extended shot at big league pitching; perhaps Darnell Coles can help him tap into some patience in spring training.

For his part, Bethancourt will no doubt be eager for the fresh start. He was known for his confidence as a prospect; if he starts launching balls into the bleachers in Colorado Springs, it’s not impossible to imagine him surging into a big league bench role as a 35-40 hitter with 60 defense and a 70 arm. That’s the upside. The downside, of course, is that he never reaches the major leagues again. Milwaukee is now the third organization to roll the dice on Bethancourt’s potential; here’s hoping that he’s David Stearns’s latest late bloomer.


 

Photo Credit: Rick Scuteri, USAToday Sports Images.

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