This is how completely the Atlanta Braves had soured on Christian Bethancourt: They traded the guy regarded as their catcher of the future without a clear-cut catcher of the future in their organization. At the major-league level, they have A.J. Pierzynski, who’ll turn 39 in 19 days, and Tyler Flowers, who’ll turn 30 in January and whom the Braves once traded away (for Javier Vazquez way back in 2008).
Beyond that, there’s … well, Lucas Herbert. The Braves made him the 54th player taken in the June draft. He just turned 19. He caught Kolby Allard — the Braves’ No. 1 pick of 2015 — at San Clemente High. Herbert is considered a better receiver than a hitter, but he’s so young it’s impossible to know what he might become. (He has had four minor-league at-bats. He’s 2-for-4 with a home run.)
None of the above is as talented as Bethancourt, but the Braves decided — after less than half a big-league season — that he wasn’t worth the aggravation. I’m told one of Braves’ highest-ranking executives had grown so frazzled by Bethancourt that he’d avert his eyes when the catcher was catching.
Note, please: Not when Bethancourt was hitting. (And he’s not much of a hitter.) When catching. His seeming indifference to detail drove the Braves nuts, and here we must mention that manager Fredi Gonzalez, once a catcher himself, and bullpen coach Eddie Perez, once Greg Maddux’s personal catcher, labored long to try and impress the importance of the position on Bethancourt.
The passed balls weren’t the only reason the Braves grew frustrated, but they were tangible evidence. Bethancourt had 14 in 73 major-league games. That’s roughly one every five games. There being no knuckleballer among Braves pitchers, the only sensible explanation for a passed ball is inattention. He’s a catcher, right? Shouldn’t a catcher be able to catch?
(By way of contrast, Pierzynski — never regarded as a top-shelf defender — has averaged roughly one passed ball every 20 games. Yadier Molina, the best in the business, has averaged one every 22 1/2 games.)
The Braves hoped they’d sounded an alarm when they demoted Bethancourt to Gwinnett in June, but nothing they saw after recalling him in August made them believe he was a changed man. He still couldn’t hit. He still didn’t take charge of games. (A catcher has to be the most involved player on the field: That’s what Gonzalez and Perez kept telling him, to not much avail.) He still had the air of entitlement that set his elders’ teeth a-grinding.
And now he’s an ex-Brave. He was traded to San Diego — yep, the Padres again — for Casey Kelly, a 26-year-old pitcher rated San Diego’s 30th-best prospect, and for the 17-year-old catcher Ricardo Rodriguez, who has played one minor-league season. (Rodriguez was ranked as the No. 21 international prospect of last year, FYI.)
That’s a modest return for the Braves’ 2015 Opening Day catcher, but this wasn’t a trade to get something. This was a trade to get rid of something. And here we note, not for the first time, that an awful lot of players considered leading prospects under Frank Wren — Bethancourt, Jose Peraza, Evan Gattis, David Hale, Tommy La Stella, Alex Wood, J.R. Graham — have been shown the door by the new administration. That’s a baseball truth: If the guys in charge didn’t draft/sign/acquire you, they’re never married to you.