Christian Bethancourt stepped to the plate at Turner Field on Sept. 29 in the eighth inning of a meaningless game. The Braves had already wrapped up the NL East and were beating the Phillies 10-5. Tyler Cloyd was getting in some work on the mound for Philadelphia.
Aside from a few Braves fans who understood Bethancourt's potential, there was little applause. Bethancourt, who hadn't seen live pitching in nearly a month, quickly struck out in his first major league plate appearance.
It almost surely won't be the last time Atlanta sees Bethancourt, but the question is when.
Bethancourt is a former top 100 prospect who has fought to stay above water against more advanced competition throughout his time in the minors. Three times he has repeated a level to improve upon his numbers, yet he remains just 22 years old. And yet, he is 22 years old.
After a much-improved 2013 at Double-A Mississippi that saw him hit .277/.305/.436 with 21 doubles, 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases, Bethancourt has reached the point where the Braves have to consider when is the best time to see if he sinks or swims in the majors.
This is boosted by the fact that Brian McCann is likely to leave Atlanta for a bigger contract, and Evan Gattis remains the only in-house option as a starting catcher.
Bethancourt took a step forward in his second trip to Double-A, and a big reason is a swing that has smoothed out some over the past couple years. The 6-2 catcher is known as a defense-first receiver, as he displays an elite arm with good footwork at release; he also has improved upon his receiving skills, and I've been told his footwork on blocking balls isn't as lackadaisical now as I saw in the lower minors.
But Bethancourt's bat has improved to the point where he held his own at Double-A, which is a big test for minor league hitters. He showed a little more loft in his swing and didn't push the bat through the zone quite as much, using a better load and more wrist action. It hasn't been a complete fix; Bethancourt still pushes the bat some, and I noticed he tends to cheat inside more than he should. He also leaves his body in the box a touch more against right-handed pitchers than left-handers, an indication that he doesn't feel as comfortable against righties. But if you saw Bethancourt in the lower levels compared to his time this season, the progress is evident.
If Bethancourt's time in the minors is any indication, and it tends to be for players, the adjustment period in the majors could be long and a bit weary. But remember he is a defense-first catcher who has the potential to be among the best at the position at the highest level. The bat will always come second, and his defense should be enough to carry him until adjustments are made.
Considering an improved swing and the potential for pop at the big league level, an offensive season similar to Andrelton Simmons this year could be expected for Bethancourt once he adjusts. In fact, the overall skill set of the two aren't that different, and we know Simmons totaled 4.7 fWAR in 2013.
Baseball Prospectus' Jason Cole wrote a report on Bethancourt this season that included this line: "The offensive profile itself isn’t particularly exciting––I’m thinking .240 with low on-base and 10-15 home runs––but when coupled with a plus glove and elite arm, it should be enough to make Bethancourt an everyday player."
So when is it time to give him a shot in Atlanta? Some point in 2014 - maybe even opening day - shouldn't be counted out, and full time by 2015 should be expected. One word of advice: Give him time to adjust.