The Braves are already blessed with having the best catcher in baseball, Brian McCann, who will only be 28 years old next season, so catcher isn't a real spot of need for the team. Thus, it's a luxury that one of the team's top prospects is a catcher with the potential to develop into an All-Star. They have several other solid prospects at the position, including a player who would be much more highly regarded if he was a little younger.
1. Christian Bethancourt - B/T: R/R, Born: 09/02/1991, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 190 - Bethancourt was considered a premium prospect from the moment he was signed out of his native Panama, but after nice seasons as a 16 year old in the Dominican Summer League and as a 17 year old in the Gulf Coast league, he struggled in 2010 with Low A Rome, hitting just .251 with a .607 OPS. He returned to Rome this season as a 19 year old and fared much better, hitting .303 with a .753 OPS, 10 doubles, 4 homers, and 33 RBI in 235 at bats. He was promoted to High A Lynchburg at the end of June, and while he hit for average well, batting .271, he struggled to get on base, with a .277 OBP, and didn't hit for much pop, with a .325 slugging percentage. As disappointing as that showing was, it was to be expected considering his youth, and he's followed it up by crushing the Arizona Fall League, hitting .319 with a .918 OPS, 3 doubles, 5 homers, 13 RBI, and 3 stolen bases in 69 at bats.
Bethancourt is a big, strong player, which makes him the kind of target behind the plate that pitchers love to throw to, and he has an absolute cannon for an arm, throwing out 38% of attempted base stealers for his career, and 47% of them in 35 games with Lynchburg. He has had some trouble blocking balls and even occasionally just catching them, and those problems highlight recurring questions about his drive and work ethic. The doubts about his attitude are growing more infrequent as he grows and matures, and his showing in the AFL is a clear sign of his commitment to the game. At the plate, Bethancourt has shown the ability to hit for average, though he hasn't yet learned how to drive the ball, with a lowly .373 slugging percentage for his career. Hopefully his newfound slugging prowess in Arizona, he's hit as many homers in 69 AFL at bats as he did in 387 regular season at bats, is a sign of his development and not just a pleasant side effect of the thin air. Still, he has a strong frame and it's easy to imagine one day he'll have plenty of pop in his bat. Of more concern is his utter inability to take a walk. He's walked in just 4% of his his career plate appearances and that number dropped to just 3% this season. Plate discipline is one of the last thing young hitters learn, so there's a chance he could dramatically improve in this area, but there's an even higher likelihood that he'll always struggle with getting on base.
Bethancourt is one of the Braves' most promising prospects, and he has a chance to become a Gold Glover and a perennial All-Star in the mold of Yadier Molina. The Braves are set for years at catcher with the best in the Majors at the position, Brian McCann, which is perfect because it will take several years for Bethancourt to develop. He'll return to Lynchburg in 2012 as a 20 year old, and the Braves will allow him to set his own pace. There will be ups and downs with him over the next few years, but once he puts it all together he'll be another fantastic testament to the Braves' scouting department.
The rest of the list after the jump:
2. Evan Gattis - B/T: R/R, Born: 08/18/1986, Ht: 6'4", Wt: 230 - If Gattis were several years younger, he would be a prized prospect, but he was much older than most of his competition, spending the majority of this year playing as a 24 year old in Low A with Rome. He did dominate the way an older player should, hitting .322 with a .986 OPS, 24 doubles, 22 home runs, and 71 RBI in just 377 plate appearances. After high school, Gattis' life lost direction, as he struggled with anger issues, was occasionally homeless, and ended up in drug rehab. He got his life together and spent a year at UT-Permian Basin before getting drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round in 2010. He had a nice debut season with Danville, hitting .288 with a .726 OPS in 242 plate appearances, then came into Spring Training 30 pounds lighter, a move that certainly benefit him during his fantastic 2011 season.Gattis' past scared away many teams, but he's an incredibly dedicated player and a positive influence in the clubhouse. His age and hard earned maturity make him a natural leader.
Gattis is a huge target behind the plate, which pitcher love, but that's about all he has going for him defensively. The years away from baseball didn't hurt his bat, but they left him rusty in the field. He has hard hands and is slow at blocking balls in the dirt, and didn't fare well in the handful of games he played at first base. He does have a strong arm, but he needs work on his throwing mechanics. As a hitter, he is a huge and powerful natural, with the ability to hit to all fields and really hammer left handed pitchers.
Christian Bethancourt is the prize catcher in the Braves system, and Gattis was forced into backup duty while they were both playing for Rome. That, combined with his age, will likely lead the team to challenge him and move him up to AA Mississippi to start 2012, so that he won't have to compete for playing time with Bethancourt at High A Lynchburg. AA will be a real test for Gattis at the plate, but there are plenty of indicators that he should be able to handle more advanced pitching. He must become a better defender, because catchers with his kind of offensive potential are incredibly rare. The only position he could possibly move to would be first base, where his bat would still be nice, but not as special. Gattis is an interesting, unconventional prospect, and his 2012 season should be one of the more intriguing stories in the organization.
3. Nick DeSantiago - B/T: L/R, Born: 04/17/1991, Ht: 5'11", Wt: 215 - The Braves selected DeSantiago out of Blinn College in the 5th round this year, and he had a less than inspiring debut for Rookie level Danville, hitting .214 with a .574 OPS, 6 doubles, and 13 RBI in 187 plate appearances. He did show a good ability to work the count, walking in 14% of his at bats, good for a .323 OBP. The Braves believe his bat will come around with a little tinkering, and having good strike zone judgment will only help his growth as a hitter. He has a sturdy, strong body, though he doesn't project to have much power. Behind the plate, he has a strong arm, but still has some work to do with blocking balls in the dirt and calling a game. He's a prototypical short, squat catcher, and is likely to become a solid defender. DeSantiago will head to Low A Rome in 2012, where he'll look to develop all aspects of his game over his first full season. He may never develop into a starter, but he has a very good chance to become a very good backup catcher.