Earlier this month, Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union Tribune reported that the Padres were mulling a role change for catcher Christian Bethancourt that would allow him to catch, play third base and also pitch. Today, Lin reports that Bethancourt has been up to 97 mph in while facing live hitters and is planning to pitch in the Panama Winter League as the next step in the process (Twitter links).
Bethancourt is working to develop a changeup, Lin writes, but it’s no surprise to see that his velocity is already lighting up the radar gun. As a prospect, Bethancourt was lauded for having one of the best arms in all of baseball and routinely drew an 80 grade for his arm strength (on the 20-80 scouting scale). That, of course, doesn’t mean that he’ll be able to command his fastball effectively if he does attempt to pitch in the Majors, and he’ll need at least one additional pitch in order to succeed, hence the work on the changeup.
While not all transitions of this nature are successful, Bethancourt would hardly be the first player to start his career behind the plate but end up working on the mound. Kenley Jansen is the most notable instance of that jump, but others such as Chris Hatcher, Jason Motte and Troy Percival began their careers as catchers. Of course, this type of conversion is also typically made earlier in a player’s career; Jansen’s final game as a catcher came in 2009 at the age of 22, for instance. Hatcher did catch up until the year 2010 — his age-25 season and the same age at which Bethancourt presently finds himself. That similarity notwithstanding, Hatcher caught just five games in the Majors before making a permanent move to the mound. Bethancourt, on the other hand, has already played in 153 Major League games and racked up 482 plate appearances.
There’s little in the way of recent precedent for a player being able to work as a pitcher, a catcher, an infielder and even an outfielder — the Padres put Bethancourt in the outfield 12 times this season, and he logged a combined 73 2/3 innings between the two corners — but if Bethancourt is able to pull it off with any degree of success, he’d become an enormously valuable asset for the Friars. Certainly, there’s quite a bit of work to be done on his end before that notion even approaches reality, but pitching in Panama this winter will give the club a chance to evaluate him in a game setting and determine the viability of Bethancourt serving as a mound option in the near future. Gaining experience in Panama and during Spring Training will be especially important for Bethancourt, as he’s out of minor league options and therefore can’t be sent down to further hone his skills as a pitcher in the minors.