Coming into 2009 Baseball America ranked 3 catchers among the Braves top 30 prospects Braeden Schlehuber (no. 18), Matt Kennelly (20) and Christian Bethancourt (30). Historically, catcher has been a position of strength for the Braves as they have produced Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Brayan Pena, Tyler Flowers, Max Ramirez and even Clint Sammons all in the last 5 seasons. This year saw the emergence of maybe the Braves next big prospect at catcher (and maybe any position) but also the backsliding of nearly every other significant catching prospect in the system. Here are the top-5 catching prospects in the Atlanta Braves organization:
1. Christian Bethancourtt B/T: R/R Born: 09/02/1991 HT: 6'2" WT: 175
After being named the top prospect in the Gulf Coast League by Baseball America, Bethancourt was voted unanimously as the top catching prospect by the Talking Chop team and there are tons of reasons why. He was signed out of Panama in 2008 for $600,000 and was considered the top catching prospect on the international scene. He debuted in the DSL last year and put together a solid if unspectacular season as a 16 year old posting a .699 OPS while erasing 43% of potential basestealers. In 2009 Christian started to show why the Braves were willing to spend on him. Between the GCL and the Appalachian League Bethancourt posted a .788 OPS (GCL: .775; APL: .812). Now at first glance that isn't Heywardesque but when you consider that he was playing at 3 years younger than the average age in the GCL and nearly 4 years younger than average in the Appy those numbers become pretty impressive. Add onto that, that his OPS+ was around +116 combined and you really get an idea of what this kid already offers. He showed a better than expected feel for the strike zone this season with around a 9% walk rate though his strikeouts did spike when he moved to Danville. He is praised for his athleticism behind the plate and he has flashed some doubles power so far and projects to add more power as he grows into his body (he has grown 2 inches and added 15 pounds since he was signed). Right now it is unclear where Bethancourt will start next season, but if he proves himself int he off-season the Braves aren't shy about promoting catchers quickly.
Matt is a guy a lot people had high hopes for coming into this season including the Braves. In fact, their hopes were so high that they started the 20 year old catcher in the Carolina League rather than the Sally like most observers had expected and he responded by posting pretty poor offensive numbers before being demoted to Rome in late June where he performed better but still not great. Again, Kennelly was young for both leagues he was in by almost 1.5 and 2.5 years. What gets Kennelly on this list is his age and inexperience. He was signed in 2005 out of Australia and has improved rapidly since entering pro ball. Scouts praise his intangibles which include his leadership and the ability to make adjustments. The most disconcerting problem this year was how his ability to throw out baserunners slipped from 57% last year in the Appy League to just 20% between both levels this year. Matt has some power in his bat but that didn't have a chance to show up this season and he could stand to take some more walks but as he will still be just 21 next season he has some time to make adjustments both at the plate and behind it. Where he begins next season is still to be determined.
3. Jesus Sucre B/T: R/R Born: 04/30/1988 HT: 6'0" WT: 200
Jesus Sucre had a bit of a breakout season for the Braves after little consideration as a prospect before the year began. He rode an incredibly hot May (.389/.405/.542) to a starting job and eventually a promotion to replace the struggling Matt Kennelly. Sucre probably isn't as good a hitter as his Rome stats indicate as nearly all of his value is tied up in his AVG. He shows an incredibly poor walk rate and a solid K rate (very similar to Donell Linares for Myrtle Beach) and little to no power. Luckily for him his defense is pretty solid. He has a classic catchers body but with good mobility behind the plate which has led to a Range Factor of 8.89 which is pretty spectacular. Add to that his arm strength which has allowed him to throw out over 40% of of basestealers in his minor league career and you are looking at a guy who could very well be the Braves backup catcher of the future.
4. Braeden Schlehuber B/T: R/R Born: 01/07/1988 HT: 6'3" WT: 190
Just looking at his stats one has to wonder what Baseball America was thinking rating Schlehuber as the Braves top catching prospect coming into the season. He posted an atrocious .573 OPS for Rome this year, a place he should have been ready for given his age. BA notes that the Braves were so impressed with him before the season they considered sending him to Myrtle Beach but instead they apparently were more impressed with Kennelly. Sifting through his stats, there is very little to salvage from this season especially considering BA's praise of his tools with strong hand eye coordination and good speed. He did post a solid XBH% as 40% of his hits went for multiple bags which is actually a tick better than what Jason Heyward did this year. Also his K rate improved from last season dropping nearly 3% as he moved up a level. Braeden also had an incredibly low BABIP at .227 but that could be attributed to weak contact in general. His defense was actually better than advertised with a solid 8+ range factor and 39% caught stealing which is a huge improvement from last year. Going forward he needs to improve his ability to make solid contact and generate the power that is in his big frame, if he can do that then he could being to convert some of his potential into production. His clock is ticking though.
5. Benjamin "Benji" Johnson B/T: R/R Born: 07/17/1986 HT: 6'1" WT: 195
Benji makes this list because he is the most advanced catcher in the system not named Clint Sammons and therefore has the best chance to make an impact in the majors in upcoming seasons. His defense is his calling card but even there he isn't the best in the system. He threw out 30% of basestealers this season which was a career high for him and he posted a solid range factor at 8.5 while only allowing 4 passed balls and committing 3 errors. His bat isn't anything special as he has posted a career .626 OPS. His best feature offensively is his power but even that is not a plus tool. Benji's road to the majors will be rough with a similar and more experienced player ahead of him (Clint Sammons) and better all around players coming from behind him (Kennelly, Bethancourt).
Honorable Mentions: Daniel Elorriaga-Matra; Matt Kramer