Here's pulling for Christian Bethancourt to become the latest Yogi Berra, Joe Torre, Johnny Bench, Craig Biggio, Joe Mauer and Buster Posey as somebody who catches while doing something else on the side.In several of those examples, catching led to full-time duty elsewhere on a Major League diamond, but let's
Here's pulling for Christian Bethancourt to become the latest Yogi Berra, Joe Torre, Johnny Bench, Craig Biggio, Joe Mauer and Buster Posey as somebody who catches while doing something else on the side.
In several of those examples, catching led to full-time duty elsewhere on a Major League diamond, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Maybe you've heard. If not, I'll tell you about the most inspiring story in baseball so far during Spring Training. Earlier this week in Peoria, Ariz., Bethancourt spent a split-squad game in the Cactus League looking like the reincarnation of Trevor Hoffman for the Padres. The 25-year-old faced three A's batters, and they were retired in order courtesy of a groundout, a flyout and a lineout. Bethancourt threw 11 pitches (seven for strikes), and the radar guns of scouts watching behind home plate kept fluctuating between 93-95 mph after each of his throws.
There were mostly fastballs from the 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-hander, but he also delivered a sinker and a slider.
"We thought about, after taking him out [of the game after his relief appearance], putting him behind the dish, just because that would be fun," Padres manager Andy Green told reporters. "He's still got a long way to go to make the club in this capacity, but this was a great step. If he's able to do that, he turns into an eighth arm in the bullpen, turns into a third catcher, turns into a pinch-hitter. It give us a lot of options."
Oh, and if Bethancourt is a part of San Diego's Major League roster on Opening Day, here's another option for the team: Turning this guy into the next Tony Gwynn on defense. OK, I'm getting carried away. Neither Bethancourt nor anybody else will match Gwynn by evolving into another Mr. Padre with the glove or with the bat. Gwynn also played right field, and Bethancourt is shagging fly balls with regularity these days in left field.
"I'm just here to make the team," Bethancourt said, reflecting on his nondescript Major League career that featured three seasons as a catcher in the Braves' organization before he joined the Padres last year. "As far as I know, my role is to be a utility guy, and my goal is just to prepare for any situation -- left field, pitching, catcher, DH, pinch-hitter, anything."
Sound familiar? I'll stick to the Baseball Hall of Famers and potential ones among catchers that I mentioned earlier. Within that group, there are those who shuffled during their career between positions, such as Berra (catcher, outfield) and Bench (catcher, third base, first base, outfield). And there are others who made a permanent switch from behind the plate to elsewhere, such as Biggio (second base) and Mauer (first base).
This isn't just a catcher thing.
Babe Ruth was a pretty good pitcher for the Red Sox, and I'm guessing you know what happened after that. I also could mention Alexander Rodriguez and Cal Ripken Jr., switching from shortstop to third base, or Ernie Banks going from winning a couple of National League MVP Awards at shortstop to closing the bulk of his Baseball Hall of Fame career at first.
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I know. Those situations are different than the one involving Bethancourt, because the Benches, the Ruths and the Ripkens were already established in their careers before they went elsewhere in the field.
That's why Rick Ankiel comes to mind regarding Bethancourt. After a couple of rough seasons as a pitcher with the Cardinals from 1999-2001, followed by a slew of struggles on the mound in the Minor Leagues, Ankiel switched to the outfield. When he returned to the Cards in his new capacity late during the 2007 season, his powerful arm on defense and potent bat at the plate helped him stick around in the Majors for the next six years.
The point is, Bethancourt has plenty of time to get this right, but I'm still wondering how this all went wrong.
I'll set the foundation for where Bethancourt is now in the Major Leagues by going back to where he was when I first met him inside of the home clubhouse of the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta.
Nice kid. Just a few weeks after his 22nd birthday. Pretty confident but not cocky.
Here was the biggest thing: Bethancourt was a catcher. Period. Not only that, but soon after he joined the Braves' Minor League system in 2008, MLB.com anointed this Panama City native as the seventh-best catching prospect in baseball. If not Pudge Rodriguez, Bethancourt was destined at least in the minds of many to follow in the shin guards and chest protector of Torre, Bruce Benedict, Javy Lopez and Brian McCann, among the catchers in Braves history who made multiple trips to the All-Star Game.
It never happened. After Bethancourt made his Major League debut back then in September 2013, he spent the next two seasons fluctuating between Triple-A Gwinnett and the big league club. He struggled at the plate, and even worse, he had issues with passed balls and errors.
Bethancourt needed a change, and that happened in two ways before the 2016 season. First he was dealt by the Braves to the Padres. Second, Bethancourt began his flirtation with pitching as a mop-up reliever for San Diego during a couple of blowouts. Now the supposedly can't-miss catching prospect is flashing signs of becoming a serviceable enough catcher who can give the Padres a few clutch innings on the mound when he isn't in left.
Whatever works. Here's hoping this really works.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com.