KANSAS CITY — It said plenty about Christian Bethancourt’s defensive prowess when the Braves catching prospect was selected to play in Sunday’s All-Star Futures Game despite his puny .558 on-base-plus-slugging percentage this season at Double-A Mississippi.
It didn’t take long for the 20-year-old Panamanian to show off his howitzer of an arm to a national TV audience and big crowd at Kauffman Stadium. Bethancourt threw out Astros infield prospect Jonathan Singleton on a strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play to end the second inning of the U.S. team’s 17-5 win over Bethancourt’s World team.
Bethancourt, who played 5-1/2 innings and went 0-for-3, was the only Braves prospect selected to play in the annual Futures Game. He missed much of May with a pulled hamstring, which set back one of the Appalachian League’s youngest players just when he was starting to get into an offensive groove in his first month above Class A.
“That was one of the things that made it more frustrating, because I was trying to do a better job hitting,” said the rangy catcher, who has a .254 average with no homers, 16 RBIs, six stolen bases and a .278 on-base percentage in 52 games for Mississippi. “It was a struggle earlier in the season. I kept working on some things, like my balance and my approach.”
A year ago, he hit .289 with five homers and 53 RBIs in 99 games for Class-A affiliates Rome and Lynchburg, then raised his stock further by hitting .306 with five homers in 72 at-bats in the prospect-filled Arizona Fall League. All the while, he shut down opposing teams’ running games and displayed steady improvement in calling a game.
His throwing arm and quick release had scouts double-checking their stopwatches last year in the Fall League, and left Braves players shaking their heads in admiration during spring training. Bethancourt was a non-roster spring invitee.
“He’s going to be really, really good,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said, describing his package of defensive skills thusly: “Sheesh. It’s as good as it comes. He’d have probably the best arm in all of baseball right now – you might even be able to say at any position. To have that behind the plate is a big asset.”
The Braves will presumably pick up a $12 million option on McCann’s contract in 2013. They haven’t commented on the likelihood of signing the six-time All-Star to an extension before free agency; he’ll be 29 in February.
Bethancourt’s hitting this year is a reminder he still needs plenty of development. But few imagined that shortstop Andrelton Simmons’ hitting would improve so rapidly from two years ago, when he had a .695 OPS and two homers in rookie ball.
Braves backup David Ross, a strong defensive catcher, said of Bethancourt: “Plain and simple, he’s a stud. His tools are off the chart, and his personality makes for a guy that wants to learn how to call a game, figure out hitters…. He’s got way better [defensive] skills than I’ve got. We’re not in the same league. He’s got one of the best arms I’ve ever seen — maybe the best.”
Bethancourt hit just .268 with a .288 OBP in April, but was 10-for-26 in his last seven games before getting hurt at the end of the month. After spending three weeks on the disabled list, he had four two-hit games in his first five full games back from the DL. But he hasn’t been consistent since.
His early frustration wasn’t tempered by being younger than most Double-A players, something well-intentioned teammates reminded him of.
“You feel good when you’re one of the youngest guys in the league,” Bethancourt said. “But you don’t just think [it’s OK because] you’re younger. Some guys said, ‘So you had two strikeouts, why are you getting mad at yourself? You’re just 20.’ I said, yeah, but do you think I want to be here for three years in Double-A? I want to keep going with my career.”
He’s doing fine in the view of Braves officials, who’ve seen Bethancourt continue to impact games with his arm.
“Bet is progressing very well,” assistant general manager Bruce Manno said. “He continues to show exceptional defensive skills and his bat is coming.”
Some scouts in the Fall League timed his throws to second base between 1.7-1.8 seconds, outstanding by major league standards. Two scouts said they hadn’t seen a catcher quicker to second base since Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez in his prime.
“Some guys have the arm, some guys have the quickness. He has both,” Braves bullpen coach and former catcher Eddie Perez said. “Him and Pudge have both. That’s what I told him.”