Bill Baer coined the term “Goldilocks Syndrome” to describe when we, as fans, get discouraged with a player or prospect because he isn’t perfect or what we hoped he would be, and Christian Bethancourt isn’t “just right”. Signed out of Panama in 2008, Bethancourt had elite potential behind the plate with good athleticism and an incredibly strong arm. The concern, however, was whether or not he could hit enough to even get the stellar defense to the majors, and four years after his signing, there are still serious concerns about Bethancourt’s bat, especially after hitting .243/.275/.291 in AA Mississippi. Bethancourt’s stock has predictably, and deservedly, fallen from the top prospect ranks, but while he’s no longer a “top prospect”, what can we still expect from him?
The chances of Bethancourt becoming a star have, indeed, fallen. One of Bethancourt’s most common comparisons is Yadier Molina because of their strong arms and inability to hit early in their careers, and the hope was (and still is to some degree) that Bethancourt can make the offensive improvements that Molina has.
Here are Yadier’s career in the minors.
As you can see, Molina moved quickly through the minors. While Yadier was not exactly an offensive force, he wasn’t useless, and his walk rate kept increasing while his strikeout rate generally decreased. Minor-league stats are wrought with danger, but the main points are that he kept moving up and at least held his own, even at a very young age. What about other star catchers? Joe Mauer spent essentially two full seasons in the minors and was in the majors by the age of 21. Brian McCann spent two-ish seasons in the minors and made his debut by 21. Buster Posey and Matt Wieters spent one-ish seasons in the minors and were up by 23, though they were both drafted out of college. Carlos Santana spent four seasons in the minors and was up at 24, but while he struggled mightily as a 21-year old in Low-A, he still had a 40/45 BB/K ratio, an ISO over .150, and was very good in his other stops. Miguel Montero spent five seasons in the minors, but he hit the entire way to the Majors at age 22. The general trend seems to be that star catchers (and players in general) don’t spend much time in the minors, and in order for that to happen, they don’t hit too many serious speed bumps.
Bethancourt, however, is no longer on that track.
|2009||17||2 Teams||2 Lgs||Rk||46||187||.277||.342||.446||.788||.169||9%||20%|
|2011||19||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A-A+||99||410||.289||.304||.385||.689||.096||3%||15%|
The young Panamanian will enter his fifth season in the minors in 2013 and hasn’t hit nearly as well as any of the guys above. Again, the chances of becoming a star (4+ win player) diminish the longer you spend in the minors and the more obstacles you run into, but it’s not entirely impossible that Bethancourt can run into a few All-Star Games. But what we should really ask is if he can still become a starting catcher.
To answer that, we need to understand what a starting catcher (2+ win) is.
|Jarrod Saltalamacchia||Red Sox||121||448||9%||31%||.232||.222||.288||.454||.319||95||-0.3||2.0|
|J.P. Arencibia||Blue Jays||102||372||5%||29%||.202||.233||.275||.435||.304||89||-1.1||1.3|
These eight players were worth around 2 wins (or could have been with more playing time) in 2012. Wilin Rosario is the only above-average hitter on the list, and he was atrocious on defense – something Bethancourt is not. Most of the offensive production for the others is well below-average, and two of the catchers with positive defensive value had wOBA of .300 (McCann) and .284 (Buck). The point here is, of course, to show you just how low the bar is to be a decent starter behind the plate in the MLB.
It is fair, however, to ask if Bethancourt can even reach those levels. Bethancourt, after all, just hit worse than all those players, and he was in AA. One thing Bethancourt has going for him is the excellent defense. I’ve seen him a few times behind the plate, and while the receiving still needs some work, the arm is a true weapon. When he was in Lexington playing as a member of Rome, I saw him throw out Delino DeShields, Jr. after the latter got a good jump. Playing catcher helps his value, but being able to do it well lowers the offensive bar he needs to reach. Being elite on one side of the ball has its advantages.
His offense isn’t good, however. Bethancourt is exceedingly aggressive at the plate (4% is his highest walk rate in full season ball), and the aggressiveness hurts his hit and power production. In the games I’ve seen him (both in person and on video), he’s never crushed a ball for me to see his power potential, but I have seen him adjust to hit off-speed pitches and make solid contact. The swing isn’t bad, but the approach is. Bethancourt still has age on his side, though. He’ll play next season at 21, and the average age of the Southern League in 2012 was 24.6, making Bethancourt one of the youngest players in the league. More PA and, hopefully, the failure of 2012 will demonstrate to Bethancourt that he needs to be more selective at the plate. He’s had trouble adjusting to new levels in the past, and the Braves are surely hoping he’ll make a similar adjustment to AA as he did to Low-A in his repeat trip. Bethancourt was overmatched, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn anything.
While Bethancourt’s chances of being the star we once hoped have fallen, he can still be a valuable player. If he plays all season in AA and next season in AAA, he will still arrive in the MLB at the age of 23. Although he’s been around for a long time (in respect to prospects), Bethancourt is still ahead of the development curve. Before I go, I failed to mention two of the starters earlier – Martin Maldonado and Jose Molina. Given enough PA, each could have accumulated (statistically) 2+ wins. Here are their minor-league careers:
|2005||18||2 Teams||2 Lgs||Rk||36||125||.254||.282||.297||.579||.043||3%||12%|
|2008||21||2 Teams||2 Lgs||AA-A+||65||216||.229||.290||.313||.603||.084||6%||19%|
|2009||22||3 Teams||3 Lgs||A+-A-AAA||95||341||.201||.295||.257||.552||.056||10%||18%|
|2010||23||3 Teams||3 Lgs||AAA-AA-A+||96||361||.239||.310||.374||.684||.135||7%||21%|
|2011||24||2 Teams||2 Lgs||AA-AAA||103||401||.287||.373||.436||.809||.149||9%||19%|
|1993||18||2 Teams||2 Lgs||Rk-A+||36||103||.212||.323||.235||.559||.023||14%||12%|
|1997||22||3 Teams||3 Lgs||A+-AAA||93||322||.224||.294||.285||.579||.061||8%||17%|
|1999||24||2 Teams||2 Lgs||AAA-AA||88||307||.251||.313||.353||.665||.102||7%||22%|
Neither was terribly good offensively, and neither made to the majors quickly. They’ve made major-league careers because they were strong defenders who weren’t completely abysmal at the plate. That’s not good enough for Goldilocks, but it’s good enough to be a very valuable player under team control.