2015 Braves Positional Preview: The Catchers

After eight years of Brian McCann, the Atlanta Braves are turning to their second starting catcher in as many seasons. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The trade of slugging backstop Evan Gattis has opened the door for a young man who has long been referred to as the catcher of the future.

Atlanta will give the keys to Christian Bethancourt, a much heralded prospect who has been top of mind for most Braves fans over the past few years. His defensive prowess has been the talk of scouts since he signed for $600,000 back in 2008. Now he gets a chance to prove he is ready to be the every day catcher.

With the bat finally starting to catch up with the glove, Bethancourt was rated the No. 5 prospect in the organization by Baseball America following a busy winter which saw new President of Baseball Operations John Hart restock the farm system. He’s been in among the Top 10 prospects on most Braves lists since 2011.

His ascent through the system has been at a deliberate pace, but he won’t turn 24 until September. Bethancourt finally made real strides with the bat over the past two seasons, earning him a prolonged stay in Atlanta when Gattis was sidelined in 2014. He belted eight home runs among 26 extra-base hits and turned in a .283/.308/.408 slash line in 91 games with Triple-A Gwinnett last season.

The burgeoning power could allow Bethancourt to follow the Yadier Molina route of offensive improvement. He’s an aggressive contact hitter who doesn’t draw many walks. That’s consistent with a Molina comparison. However, stacking those two men side by side would be an unfair tag to slap on Bethancourt. The similarities are striking, but Atlanta isn’t expecting an overnight hitting sensation. They’ll settle for steady contributions and marked progress over the coming months and years. As for the comparison between Bethancourt and Molina behind the plate, that should be fun to watch.

Bethancourt’s defensive tools do have room for improvement in some areas, particularly blocking pitches. Attempting to backhand balls in the dirt has contributed to a high number of passed balls over the course of his career — 88 in 500 total games. That included half a dozen in his 31 big league games last season. It’s a habit he will have to break. Bethancourt’s ability to manage a staff and call games will be tested more than ever, but this is true of any young catcher transitioning to the big leagues. With 29 starts already under his belt, Atlanta feels confident he’ll be able to handle the responsibility.

One part of his game that comes ready to make an impact right out of the box is Bethancourt’s above average arm. He’s gunned down 37 percent (200-of-545) of attempted base stealers thus far in his career. A strong, accurate arm coupled with a quick release will be an excellent deterrent for opposing base runners.

The Backup

Atlanta signed A.J. Pierzynski, 37, to a one-year, $2 million deal to serve as a mentor and insurance policy of sorts. In fact, he was one of several veteran catchers who call the organization home in 2015. We’ll get to the rest shortly, but it’s worth noting that the Braves like the idea of having their young arms throwing to experienced battery mates en route to the big leagues. That should allow for added development.

Pierzynski is a lifetime .281 hitter with 177 homers and 837 RBI who has proven extremely durable over his 17-year career. He batted .251 with five home runs and 37 RBI last season between the Red Sox and Cardinals. Having a mentor with as much experience as Pierzynski makes perfect sense as Bethancourt begins his first full season in the big leagues. It probably doesn’t hurt to have a left-hand hitting platoon option as well.

For his part, Pierzynski told me he looks forward to the opportunity to work closely with Bethancourt:

“One thing they talked about with me is coming over and helping him. That was something I was very excited about. I’ve seen him play, obviously on TV, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about him from different people. So, they just talked to me about coming over and trying to get the most out of this kid and teach him how to be a big league catcher at an everyday level. I think that’s different than just being a big league catcher. To do it every day is a different animal than just showing up and doing it every couple of days or being a young kid and not having much thrown on you. To do it every day at a [high] level and have expectations is something different and I’ve done it for a long time. Hopefully, I can give him some knowledge to make him a better player.”

The Reserves

As touched on earlier, the Braves have brought in a slew of veteran catchers to help aid the development of the young pitchers working their way through the system. John Buck, 34, is a former All-star who has spent parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues. He joins his eighth organization after signing a minor league deal with Atlanta that includes a invite to spring training. Buck brings some power to the table, but is just a .234 career hitter. He’s likely to see the majority of his time with Triple-A Gwinnett, but could end up being a third catcher on the big league squad if the Braves continue that recent trend.

Jesus Flores, 30, is another catcher who signed a minor league deal with a invitation to spring training. He spent five seasons with the Nationals from 2007-2012, but a stress fracture in his shoulder derailed his career and cost him most of 2009 and all of 2010. Flores worked his way back, but failed to stick in Washington. He’s made stops in the Rays, Dodgers and Royals organizations the past two seasons and figures to compete with Buck for a roster spot or spend his time in Gwinnett.

In addition to those two, there will be plenty of non-roster invitees doing some catching this spring. Yenier Bello, 30, was signed by Atlanta last spring, but only got into 15 games between the Gulf Coast League and High-A Lynchburg. He’s had to go through quite a bit to find his way to a big league team, which Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com detailed last year. The jury is obviously still out on what the Braves have in Bello.

Another intriguing name is third-year prospect Tanner Murphy, a fourth round pick in 2013. Baseball America rated the soon to be 20-year-old Murphy as Atlanta’s No. 17 prospect heading into 2015, citing his power potential among a strong tool set. Regardless, he’s likely to be heading to Low-A Rome this season.

Other non-roster catchers who will be in camp include Matt Kennelly, the recently acquired Chris O’Dowd (son of former Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd), Braeden Schlehuber and Jose Yepez.

Next Up: The Outfield (Feb. 11)

Not too long ago, the Braves rolled out what they hoped would be the finest outfield in baseball. Fast forward to two years later, and much has changed. Jason Heyward and Justin Upton were traded away over the winter and only B.J. Upton remains of that trio. If he can hold onto his starting gig, the elder Upton will be flanked by a new cast of characters in 2015. We’ll size them up in Part 3 of this preview series.

 

Grant McAuley covers the Braves for Sports Radio 92-9 The Game. You can follow Grant on Twitter. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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