The Padres sent catcher/outfielder/reliever Christian Bethancourt outright to Triple-A earlier this week after he cleared waivers with the hope that he’d continue to hone his mound skills, and as Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union Tribune writes, Bethancourt has informed general manager A.J. Preller that he is indeed open to that. Bethancourt only recently began experimenting as a pitcher, and Preller tells Lin that the organization involved the 25-year-old in the decision process.
“It’s his career,” Preller tells Lin. “…Talking to him, he said, ‘I want to give it a go.’ I think he understands he can always go back to catching and he wants to see how it plays out on the pitching front if he has regular practice and outings.”
Coming up through the Braves’ system, Bethancourt rated as one of the game’s top 100 prospects as a catcher, thanks largely to his rocket arm. Multiple scouting reports, in fact, placed an 80 grade on his arm (on the 20-80 scouting scale). An issue with passed balls and his struggles at the plate, however, may have contributed to San Diego’s preference to get a look at Bethancourt on the mound; in 489 Major League plate appearances, he’s batted just .222/.252/.316.
Unsurprisingly, Bethancourt is a work in progress on the mound. Though he allowed just two runs in 8 1/3 innings in Spring Training, he also issued four walks against just three strikeouts in that time. His work as a pitcher during the regular season has been unsightly, as Bethancourt has logged a 10.13 ERA with three strikeouts against 11 walks in just 5 1/3 innings. That’s not necessarily indicative of the hard-throwing Bethancourt’s potential on the mound, though. Learning to pitch at the Major League level with scant mound experience elsewhere is obviously a daunting task, which no doubt factored into his removal from the 40-man roster. (Bethancourt was out of minor league options, thus the exposure to outright waivers.) Despite those struggles, Bethancourt did offer a glimpse of his potential on the mound during his 2017 work, as he averaged better than 94 mph on his fastball and topped out at 98 mph (per Brooks Baseball).
According to Lin, Bethancourt will continue to pinch-hit and take batting practice while in Triple-A, but the vast majority of his focus will be on his work as a reliever. “He’ll get a chance to face the next-best league to the big leagues,” says Preller of the decision to throw Bethancourt into the fire of the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. “It’s going to be a test for him, but I’m confident as far as him going out and being able to perform.”
If Bethancourt is able to successfully make the transition, he’d join Jason Motte, Chris Hatcher and, most notably, Kenley Jansen as big league relievers that opened their careers as catchers. Carlos Marmol and Troy Percival are other recent examples of relievers who found success after (much more briefly) working as catchers early in their careers.