After struggling to make it as a catcher in the big leagues, former Top-100 prospect Christian Bethancourt is learning to play the outfield and even pitch in the off-season as he looks to become a super utility player for the San Diego Padres.
When it comes to roster construction in Major League Baseball, it’s rare for teams to think outside the box. Most teams have similar roster design, with five starting pitchers, seven or eight relievers, two catchers, five or six infielders, and five or six outfielders. They have differences at the margins, but nothing radical.
The San Diego Padres are considering something different. It may not be radical, and it may not happen at all, but it’s at least something unusual they are willing to attempt. The idea is to create a super-utility player out of former top prospect Christian Bethancourt. If it works, Bethancourt would be a catcher/outfielder/relief pitcher hybrid, something never seen before in the major leagues.
Christian Bethancourt signed with the Atlanta Braves as a non-drafted international free agent at the age of 16 way back in 2008. He grew up playing baseball in Panama and always had a great arm, which made him a natural fit for the catcher position. For the first eight years of his professional career, he wore the “tools of ignorance” behind the plate.
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He was good too. Before the 2014 season he was ranked 82nd on the MLB.com top prospects list, 93rd on the Baseball Prospectus list, and 69th on the Baseball America list. After getting just one at-bats in the major leagues in 2013, Bethancourt started the year in Triple-A in 2014, where he hit .283/.308/.408. That was good enough to earn him a promotion to the big leagues. He played in 31 games for Atlanta but didn’t hit much at all, with a .248/.274/.274 batting line. Of his 28 hits, just three went for extra bases, all doubles, and he only walked three times in 117 plate appearances.
After struggling in the major leagues Bethancourt got more Triple-A time in 2015 and hit very well. His .327/.359/.480 batting line suggested he was ready to hit big league pitching. It turned out he wasn’t. He got another 160 plate appearances with the Braves and struggled even more than the year before, hitting .200/.225/.290. Again, he showed little ability to get on base or hit with power, the two most important things a hitter can do.
The once top prospect was traded to the San Diego Padres before last season. He didn’t hit much again last year (.228/.265/.368). After three years and nearly 500 plate appearances, Bethancourt’s big league prospects were dimming. Not only was he struggling to hit, he also had trouble with passed balls. He has a great arm behind the plate and has success at throwing out potential base stealers, but the passed balls have been an issue. In 940 career innings at catcher, Bethancourt has 19 passed balls. The National League catcher with the most passed balls last year was Welington Castillo, with 12 in 908 2/3 innings.
As he struggled with passed balls and hitting during the 2016 season, there were signs that Bethancourt was looking for other ways to stick in the major leagues. He played left field for the first time on May 27. Four days later, against the Seattle Mariners, he played catcher, left field, second base . . . and pitcher.
With the Padres down 16-4, Bethancourt came on in the bottom of the eighth. He got two fly ball outs and walked two batters, while throwing 26 pitches. A few weeks later he took the mound again in a blowout loss to the Marlins. This time he pitched a full inning, allowing a hit and a walk and striking out one batter. On the mound, he had a fastball that topped 90 mph and threw a 53 mph eephus pitch for a strike in his outing against the Mariners.
Embracing his newfound versatility, Bethancourt got playing time at multiple positions in the final four months of last season. He was still predominantly a catcher, playing 41 games at the position, but also got into eight games in left field, four games in right field, one game at second base, and pitched in those two blowouts.
In October, the Padres had Bethancourt throw a bullpen session in front of manager Andy Green and other Padres officials. Green talked about the idea of making Bethancourt a super utility player. He said, “We’re flirting with the idea of this guy being a very intriguing ‘25th man’ who can catch, can play the outfield and can pitch. I know no team has actually tried to deploy a guy in that capacity—probably ever when you consider those three dynamics.”
If Bethancourt can pull it off he could be a real asset to the Padres. Many teams these days carry seven or even eight pitchers in their bullpen, which leaves fewer position players on the bench. If Bethancourt can handle the pitching part of being a super-utility player it would allow the Padres to carry one fewer reliever.
He could also be used in a way that pitchers rarely are: moved from the mound to the outfield and back to the mound again. Say Bethancourt is pitching in the seventh inning. As a right-handed pitcher, he faces a couple of right-handed batters. Then a tough lefty is due to bat, followed by more righties. Padres manager Andy Green could bring in a lefty reliever, move Bethancourt to left field, then bring Bethancourt back in to face the right-handed hitters.
On Wednesday, Bethancourt got on the mound for the first time for Caballos de Cocle in the Panama Winter League. He reportedly got his fastball up to the mid-90s and threw five offspeed pitches in one scoreless innings. He threw 17 pitches. It was a serious appearance; he didn’t even throw an eephus pitch.
The Christian Bethancourt Super-Utility Player Experience may not pan out. So far, he’s been a catcher who can’t hit and who allows too many passed balls. He has little experience in the outfield and less on the mound. But, if he can be an adequate backup catcher who doesn’t embarrass himself as a fifth outfielder and be the last man out of the bullpen, he would help the Padres. He would also make watching them a little more interesting.