In a half-hour phone conversation Monday, John Hart went out of his way to insist the Atlanta Braves hadn’t seen the last of the demoted Christian Bethancourt. “He won’t be forgotten,” said Hart, the team’s president for baseball operations. “We’re sending him out with a very clear plan.”
As plans go, it sounds sound: Let the young catcher remember how to, er, catch in Gwinnett, as opposed to the National League. Hart noted that Kansas City had sent the highly regarded Mike Moustakas to Omaha for eight games last season and that St. Louis had similarly dispatched Kolten Wong to Memphis for 18 games. But I’m not sure Bethancourt will be back so soon, if it all.
The Braves could live with Bethancourt not hitting much, which he hasn’t. (He was batting .208 through Sunday and had lost his starting job to A.J. Pierzynski, the 38-year-old who was brought here to catch twice a week at most.) What tore it for the Braves were the passed balls: Bethancourt, who’d made 27 starts, had five; he had six last season, when he made 29 starts.
It’s not uncommon for a gifted young catcher to have lapses in concentration — Johnny Bench, the greatest ever, had 18 passed balls as he was becoming the 1968 rookie of the year — but that’s really the only way to explain such a thing. (Bench also hit 15 home runs with 82 RBI’s, which helped salve the sting.) If you’re not hitting, you’d darn well better be catching. Bethancourt, advertised as a top-shelf defender, was doing neither.
If the Braves were 10 1/2 games out of first place, they could have let Bethancourt learn on the job by saying, “What’s the difference? We’re not going anywhere.” But they’re 3 1/2 games back, and if you’re that close you hold out hope you can get somewhere if your bullpen stops blowing saves and your young catcher stops giving away games.
Asked if the Braves would be buyers or sellers at the July 31 trade deadline, Hart said: “Right now we’re holding.” Then this: “If it were mid-July, I’d be aggressively looking (to buy). I’m old-school that way. If we’re smelling it … “
Then this: “I can’t go out and re-invent the wheel. If there is a clear piece, you make every effort you can. (But) I’m not going to abandon ship (meaning the overall course of the franchise). We’re not going to chase down something where we just gut our farm system and do something crazy.”
Put simply, the Braves aren’t about to trade young and cheap for older and pricy in the hope that this unassuming team might up and win the division, which Baseball Prospectus gives them a 2.4 percent chance of doing. (The Braves tried that with the five-prospects-for-Mark-Teixeira deal in 2007, and it took them until 2010 just to pluck a wild card. The grateful Texas Rangers, meanwhile, graced both the 2010 and 2011 World Series.)
Hart and assistant GM John Coppolella made the considered choice to rebuild around young pitching. We can argue whether they oversold in that attempt; we cannot argue that there hasn’t been a method to the selling. But nobody really expected the Braves to be this close to first place this deep into the season, and even today the team’s brass is surprised to see the ridiculously gifted Washington Nationals only two games ahead.
If you’re a realist, you have to think that the Nats’ talent will eventually be brought to bear and the Braves’ modest resources will be their undoing. There’s not apt to be a trade for a major bullpen upgrade that doesn’t involve parting with young pitching, and that’s a trade the rebuilding Braves won’t make.
But what if the Milwaukee Brewers, owners of the second-worst record in the majors, could be persuaded to part with catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who’s 29 and who’s under contractual control through 2017? (He’s due to make $4 million next season and $5.25 million if the team exercises his option for 2017.) Lucroy isn’t Johnny Bench or even Brian McCann, but he was an All-Star last season, and he’s healthy after missing six weeks with an injured toe.
The Brewers would almost certainly demand Bethancourt, who’s 23, in return. Given that he isn’t a pitcher and that he hasn’t exactly dazzled the new hierarchy, that might be a deal the Braves would be willing to do. It would provide an immediate boost at a key position without skewing the payroll or skewering the Grand Redesign.
Note that Hart said he wasn’t going “to gut our farm system and do something crazy.” Bethancourt-for-Lucroy would be neither a gutting nor an act of insanity. It wouldn’t be a Teixeira-style one-year rental. It would be a move for this year but not just this year. And if you’re saying, “It would cost a rebuilding team its catcher of the future” … well, we’re no longer certain Bethancourt will be part of that future, are we?
Further reading: Hart on the Braves – “Right now we’re holding.”