Highly ranked prospect Christian Bethancourt is back with the Gwinnett Braves after a recent call-up to the Atlanta Braves. (Photo: Karl Moore/Gwinnett Braves)
LAWRENCEVILLE — That Gwinnett’s Christian Bethancourt is capable of playing regularly in the major leagues is no longer a question.
The 22-year-old catcher from Panama showed that during a three-week trial with the Atlanta Braves while Evan Gattis was on the disabled list.
Two bigger questions linger, though.
When will Bethancourt get that opportunity and — maybe more importantly — where?
Atlanta, battling Washington for first place in the National League East, has obvious needs, and Bethancourt’s name is sure to come up in speculation as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches next Thursday.
The Braves, though, appear more committed to Bethancourt than ever.
“This guy is going to be our catcher of the future,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said when Bethancourt was sent back to Gwinnett on Monday.
“He’s just going to have to wait his turn, which is probably hard for young players to (understand). But he was very impressive defensively, and I thought he got better offensively.”
Bethancourt, touted for his arm and quickness behind the plate since he was signed at age 16, reached base in 11 of his 13 games with Atlanta and hit .240.
Bethancourt knew, however, that the Braves planned to keep veteran Gerald Laird as the backup when Gattis returned from his back injury and he was in the Gwinnett lineup at Coolray Field just hours after being demoted.
“My job is to play,” said Bethancourt, whose time in Atlanta prevented him from appearing in a third consecutive All-Star Futures Game.
Bethancourt, batting .269 with the G-Braves despite a very cold April, had hits in his first two games back in Gwinnett, continuing where he a left off before the promotion.
The right-handed hitter, who reached base safely in a team-record 40 consecutive games last year with Class AA Mississippi, put together a 12-game hitting streak in June in which he batted .383 with three doubles and six RBIs.
“It wasn’t hard for me to come back (to Gwinnett), because I knew that was what was going to happen,” he said.
But Class AAA isn’t where any player wants to stay.
“Everyone wants to get a shot to be an everday player in the big leagues,” Bethancourt said. “I got that chance for a little while and was excited. I think I really learned from it. I’ve got to keep going and keep working hard to get back at it.”
Bethancourt, the Braves’ No. 2-ranked prospect behind pitcher Lucas Sims of Brookwood, is considered the 62nd-best prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com and the No. 5 catcher.
During his three-week stay with Atlanta, he certainly looked the part.
“I feel like I did pretty good and showed that I could play in the major leagues,” Bethancourt said. “The front office has to make decisions and I respect that. I’m just waiting on my shot again.”
Although he didn’t throw out anyone in six steal attempts, no one questions Bethancourt’s arm. His receiving skills are also major league ready and he held his own with the bat.
“All the expectations that I have for him, he’s exceeded those,” Gonzalez said during Bethancourt’s stay with the Braves. “Offensively, you see him improving from spring training, and that’s just a matter of at-bats. All of a sudden he’s got more at-bats, more experience handling the at-bats.”
Bethancourt, who started his first major league game on June 28 just hours after arriving in Philadelphia, felt that it was all about relaxing and not trying to do too much.
“I was just trying to do the best that I can do,” he said. “I was just trying to play the game right and get quality at-bats. I was trying not to put pressure on myself. It’s just another game. Just enjoy it. That’s what I did.
“It think they know what I can do. My job is to call the game, make good throws and block the ball. That’s what I do.”
There is no question that Bethancourt looks ready behind the plate, although he made his eighth error for Gwinnett on a errand pick-off throw Thursday.
Other teams are sure to mention him in any trade talks with the Braves.
The likelihood, though, is that a decision on Gattis versus Bethancourt won’t be made before this winter.
Slugger Gattis, questionable defensively, remains the catcher of the present in Atlanta. Bethancourt is the catcher of the future — with someone if not the Braves.
“When my time comes, I’ll be ready,” he said.