March 10, 2017

ELDEN | Taking a Look at MLB’s Unique Talent

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Last week I wrote about pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel. This week, I will write about catcher Christian Bethancourt, who is beginning this spring training attempting to become a catcher-relief pitcher combination player this upcoming season with the San Diego Padres. Last season, Bethancourt pitched in two games that no longer were winnable by the time he entered in order to conserve other bullpen arms. He threw 1.2 scoreless innings but walked three, which would be excellent for a position player coming in to soak up innings at the end of a blow-out.

What caught the attention of many onlookers, was Bethancourt’s 96 mph fastball. The majority of Major League pitchers fall below this pitch speed, meaning that it was especially impressive for a player not primarily used at pitcher to show that kind of promise. This offseason, the Padres asked Bethancourt to pitch in the Panamanian Winter League, in which he pitched seven innings and touched 98 miles-per-hour, and has been working on offspeed pitches as well. This spring, he has thrown two scoreless innings in two appearances, flashing his fastball, a changeup and slider in those two games.

Bethancourt’s primary value is as a defense-first catcher. Fellow defensive-whiz and top prospect Austin Hedges is expected to slot ahead of Bethancourt on the depth chart. With Bethancourt’s relegation to the bench, the pitching experiment would provide an added component to his value as a player. If successful, the Padres would be able to essentially have an extra spot on the roster, as Bethancourt could come off the bench or act as the team’s last member of the bullpen.

His versatility was further expanded last season by playing twelve games in the outfield. He hit a weak .228/.265/.368 with six home runs last season, however his defensive abilities at catcher warranted his place on the roster. At just 25 years old, it is possible that his offensive abilities could develop further, as he still has the physical tools that have been touted throughout his career. As early as 2014, Bethancourt was ranked as a top 100 prospect as a catcher. As a pitcher, an outfielder and a catcher, he would be a lock to continue on with the team.

The Padres could roster a third catcher, one like Hector Sanchez, with a focus on offense rather than defense to act as an emergency catcher and pinch-hitter. That way, if Bethancourt enters the game as a relief pitcher, the team could still have a catcher on the bench in case Hedges was injured during the game. This would provide manager Andy Green with many interesting options off the bench, possibly giving him room to experiment in a low-risk season and make the best of a weak roster.

In Major League history, there have been few players who have been able to both pitch and act as a position player. The most prominent example is Babe Ruth, who had five near full seasons as a pitcher before moving full time to the outfield. The aforementioned Ankiel started as a pitcher before suffering from anxiety and restarting his career as a position player years later. Bethancourt would be the only player over the last fifty years to pitch as a reliever and play as a position player.

He does not add particularly strong value from either catcher, outfielder or as a reliever, however his versatility certainly makes Bethancourt an interesting player to watch for this upcoming season. The Padres, currently projected to finish with the worst record in baseball and in the middle of a massive youth movement, can assuredly afford to take the risk.