As the trade deadline approaches, one persistent rumor is that the Atlanta Braves will be looking for young catching on the transaction market. Matt Goldman at MLB Daily Dish discussed these rumors last week and rumors to that effect continue.
This is interesting because the future catching needs were supposedly solved. For the last several years, the Braves felt that the backstop role would be filled by prospect Christian Bethancourt. Although his minor league track record was spotty, scouts have praised Bethancourt's physical tools ever since he was signed out of Panama in 2008. Optimists saw a future outstanding defensive catcher with a power bat.
It hasn't turned out that way. Bethancourt's physical tools are still there, but his baseball skills have never blossomed. Indeed, although he showed flashes of talent at times, his progress through the system seemed based more on reputation and hype rather than sustainable skill progress.
This was particularly true as a hitter. Although he did make improvements in isolated power as he advanced, his on-base abilities were dismal at all levels, basically because he never learned to lay off pitches outside the strike zone. Big league pitchers exploited this weakness easily: he hit .223/.248/.279 in 215 major league at-bats with six walks and 45 strikeouts with a grand total of home run.
Further discouragement came on defense. Bethancourt looks like he should be an excellent defender. He has a strong throwing arm, a quick release, and is very mobile behind the plate. It is a top-notch physical catcher package, but again the skills lag behind the tools. He's effective against runners, throwing out 35% of attempted stealers, which is enough to make running on him a losing proposition sabermetrically. However, his passed ball and error rates remain unacceptably high. If you can't hit, you have to be a lot more reliable with the glove than Bethancourt currently is.
The Braves are currently relying on immortal veteran A.J. Pierzynski to hold the catching job and he's doing well (.289/.333/.455) but he's also 38 years old and can't be the long-term answer. If the trade rumors are true, they've concluded that Bethancourt isn't the answer either. Talented young catchers aren't easy to find so we'll have to see what shakes loose on the market.
As for Bethancourt, despite all the negatives laid out here his case shouldn't be considered totally hopeless. He is still just 23 years old and all the tools are still there. A fresh start in a new organization with a different set of coaching eyes on him could still unlock the skills to make those tools valuable. It's a gamble, but someone will take it, at least in the hope that he can sharpen up the defense and have a career as a reserve.