With Brian McCann firmly entrenched at the position, the Atlanta Braves haven't had to worry about having a catcher waiting in the wings, but a rough 2012 season for McCann suddenly has Braves fans wondering what's on the farm. Unfortunately, the most talented catchers in the Braves Minor League system are also some of the most raw players in the organization.
1. Christian Bethancourt: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'2", Wt: 219, DOB: 9-2-91
The Braves have had high hopes for Bethancourt since they signed him out of Panama, and they decided to challenge him in 2012, sending the 20 year old to AA. Unfortunately, he showed his youth, hitting just .243 with a .566 OPS, 5 doubles, 2 homers, 26 RBI, and 8 steals in 288 plate appearances for Mississippi before a broken hand ended his season in early August. Still, he was named a Southern League All-Star this season, and played in the Futures Game, mostly due to his stellar defense.
Bethancourt's arm is a true 80 on the scouting scale, and often cited as one of the best in the game. In previous seasons, his blocking and game calling have come under fire, but he was vastly improved in those areas this season and is considered one of the best defensive catchers in all of baseball. Offensively, he's a completely different story, showing little to no patience at the plate and little to no power despite his bulk. He walked in just 4% of his plate appearances this season, which was actually a slight improvement after walking in just 3% of his plate appearances in 2011. His strikeout rate wasn't particularly high, fanning in 17% of his at bats, so at least he is combining contact with his his free swinging approach. Of course, it hasn't been consistent contact, given his .243 average, nor has it been solid contact, given his pathetic .291 slugging percentage. Just 12% of his hits this season went for extra bases.
At worst, Bethancourt can develop into an excellent backup catcher, though the Braves continue to hope that he develops along the lines of Yadier Molina, a top defender who struggled with the bat early in his career. It's easy to believe that some slugging power will develop as Bethancourt learns to make more consistent and solid contact, but he will never become an every day catcher if he can't learn some patience at the plate. The bright side for the Braves is that Bethancourt will return to AA in 2013 and only be 21 years old. He is still young enough to believe he can get better, and his defensive ability means even if his bat never comes around, he will have value.
2. Bryan de la Rosa: B: R, T: R, Ht: 5'8", Wt: 193, DOB: 3-26-94
After a few years of drafting more polished players with limited upside, the Braves returned to their roots this season, drafting a bevy of unpolished high school talents high on upside. De la Rosa was near the forefront of that shift, as the team selected the Puerto Rican native in the 3rd round. He struggled in his pro debut, hitting just .162 with a .415 OPS, 1 double, 1 homer, and 3 RBI, in 73 plate appearances in the GCL.
With a short and stocky build that reminds some of the great Puerto Rican catcher Pudge Rodriguez, de la Rosa is similarly known best for his defense, with his arm rating as one of the best in this year's draft. Like Bethancourt, de la Rosa projects to be a well above average catcher with questionable offense. The Braves aren't sure yet what to expect out of his bat, though given his size they don't expect him to develop much power.
de la Rosa will head to Low A Rome in 2013 as a 19 year old, and his biggest goal will be to improve himself as a hitter. If he can develop into at least an average hitter, he could be a Major League regular due to his stellar defense, but if he can't, he could still have value as a Major League backup. Like Bethancourt, de la Rosa has youth on his side, and the Braves are an organization well known for allowing players to develop at their own pace.
3. Josh Elander: B: R, T: R, Ht: 6'1", Wt: 215, DOB: 3-19-91
The Braves drafted Elander out of Texas Christian University in the 6th round this year, and he made his debut with Rookie level Danville as their starting catcher and number 3 hitter, batting .260 with a .805 OPS, 6 doubles, 4 homers, and 19 RBI in 145 plate appearances.
As a prospect, Elander is the antithesis of Bethancourt and de la Rosa, projected to be an above average hitter with questionable defense. He's a bit bulky and awkward behind the plate, and there's hope he can become at least average as a catcher. He does have some experience playing the outfield with the USA National Team in the summer of 2011, and there's a possibility he may end up in the outfield in the future. The questions about his defensive future led to him falling to the sixth round in the draft, but the Braves may have gotten themselves a first round bat. He walked in 11% of his plate appearances, walking nearly as many times as he struck out, 11 to 19, and 38% of his hits went for extra bases. He projects to have plus power and could develop into an above average every day Major League hitter.
Elander will likely skip Rome and jump up to High-A Lynchburg as a 22 year old in 2013, as the team will look to challenge his bat. The Braves will likely continue to develop him at catcher as long as they can, though they may come to a situation similar to what happened with Evan Gattis, where they decide it would be better off to let him focus on hitting by moving him off a defensively difficult position. Elander could end up being the best of the Braves' catching prospects, though he may not end up being a catcher.