The Atlanta Braves rebuild continued last week as they shipped one-time-prospect catcher Christian Bethancourt to the Padres for one-time right-handed pitching prospect Casey Kelly and catching prospect Ricardo Rodriguez. It was rumored for a while that Atlanta wanted to move on from Bethancourt, and when the team brought back veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski several weeks ago, then signed another veteran catcher in Tyler Flowers last week, it was clear the young Bethancourt was soon to be dealt.
The Braves didn’t seem to have much patience with Bethancourt this season, with indications coming from the beat writers and announcers that the team wasn’t happy with his defense and game calling. Of course, they also weren’t happy with his anemic hitting, as he posted a slash line of .200/.225/.290 in 48 games. It should be noted that 48 games isn’t much time to make an impression or get totally comfortable in the majors, especially when he never started three days in a row during the first two months of the season. With more consistent playing time, Bethancourt hit .327/.359/.480 after he was sent down to triple-A.
A supposedly rebuilding Braves club didn’t seem to have much of a desire to play the 23-year-old Bethancourt after he was recalled late in the year, preferring instead to play the 38-year-old Pierzynski. Either because of that or simply because his bat still hadn’t caught up to major league pitching, Bethancourt reverted to his poor offensive numbers, slashing .204/.232/.296 after getting called back up in late August.
Bethancourt will be just 24 years old next season, and has only started 72 major league games across parts of two seasons. The modus operandi for him throughout his minor league career was that he initially struggled at each new level, but was able to succeed at that level in his second full season go-around. With that in mind, and some regular playing time, Bethancourt might be able to catch up to major league pitching in the next year. So it’s strange that with a rebuilding year planned for the Braves in 2016 they don’t seem to want any part of trying to develop a catcher.
The answer to that question may lie in Bethancourt’s defense more than his offense. His throwing arm was always his plus-plus defensive tool, but the rest of his defensive game was generally considered pretty poor and a work in progress. The biggest knocks on his catching game seem to be in his pitch framing and game calling. There were games this season when he and Julio Teheran were simply not on the same page, and as an observer watching on TV it was quite obvious — something pretty rare to see in the major leagues. Clearly the Braves don’t believe that he can improve upon those skills, and so they chose to move on.
It should also be mentioned that when trying to develop a young pitching staff it’s important to have a catcher who is good at calling games and framing pitches in order to get his pitcher that extra bit of advantage. Pierzynski and Flowers are two catchers who are really good at both of those things. So from the standpoint of building a team through pitching, as the Braves are doing, having a competent catcher is a must.
In considering both the positive and negative aspects of Bethancourt’s game as I described them, Atlanta seems to have done pretty well with their return in this trade. Casey Kelly was a huge pitching prospect, ranking among the top-100 prospects for four years from 2010 to 2013. He was also one of the main prospects traded to San Diego in the 2010 Adrian Gonzalez trade with the Red Sox. Everything seemed to be on track for him to be an important part of the Padres rotation until ye olde elbow ligament went bad in the spring of 2013, and he had to have Tommy John surgery.
It’s been a really long recovery for Kelly, who went all the way down to double-A this year to try and figure things out. He made it back to the majors this year for three games (two of them starts) at the end of the season. I like this acquisition by Atlanta. Sure, he’s potentially damaged goods, but if he can regain that top-100 talent he showed before the injury, then they found a mid-rotation starter. Kelly also has options left, so he can compete for a job in spring training, but spend the year at triple-A if he doesn’t make the opening day roster. He also performed pretty well as a reliever this year.
The final piece in this deal is catcher Ricardo Rodriguez. He was one of the top-30 international prospects when he signed with the Padres in 2014 for $800,000 out of Venezuela. Described as a defense-first, bat-later backstop, he doesn’t have any standout tool behind the plate, but is athletic and does everything well at a young age. Many scouts seem to believe that his bat is the biggest question mark, with many wondering if he’ll ever hit enough to be more than a backup.
Therefore it was an odd debut last year for Rodriguez, who split time between the Dominican League and the Padres complex ball rookie league. He hit better than expected, slashing .266/.336/.376, but made eight errors in just 25 games behind the plate. He’s still very young, and very raw in all facets of the game, but his skill set shows a solid foundation for an above average catching prospect. I expect he’ll start the year with one of the Braves rookie league teams, as the organization takes a slow and methodical approach to his development.
He does rank among the top-35 Braves prospects for me, based on bonus received and scouting reports. He slots in at No. 26, and will be the highest ranked catcher in a system now completely barren of catching prospects at the upper levels.
Overall this was a decent trade for the Braves. While they may have given up on Bethancourt too soon, it was pretty obvious last year that he wasn’t in their plans. Despite his poor performances they still managed to wrangle a solid catching prospect from San Diego, albeit one who is a long ways away, and a decent gamble on the once highly thought of Kelly.