BOSTON — The Braves’ former No. 1 prospect, Christian Bethancourt, was sent a strong message when the struggling catcher was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett and told he must improve his defense and cut down on mistakes.
They called up well-traveled catcher Ryan Lavarnway, whose contract was purchased from Gwinnett. Lavarnway, who spent parts of the past four seasons with the Red Sox, was expected to join the Braves in time for their Monday night opener of a two-game series in Boston.
Bethancourt was hitting .208 (21-for-104) with one homer, nine RBIs and a .231 OBP and .528 OPS in 29 games, and more importantly he ranked 66th out of 82 qualifiers in Catchers’s ERA (4.50), according to ESPN Stats. Catcher’s ERA takes into account various defensive statistics.
Bethancourt ranked third among National League catchers in most passed balls (five) and tied for fourth in errors (three) despite playing in less than half of his team’s games.
“He won’t be forgotten,” Braves president of baseball operations John Hart. “We’re sending him out with a very clear plan.”
Hart likened it to the the Royals sending down third baseman Mike Moustakas in May 2014 or the Cardinals sending down second baseman Kolten Wong in April 2014, both of whom came back soon and played important roles.
Bethancourt had three errors in his past 11 games and also had two passed balls and a catcher’s interference in the past week that cost the Braves’ runs, including a passed ball in the first inning of Sunday’s 10-8 loss to the Mets. He was sent down after that game, and the announcement was made at noon Monday.
Bethancourt, who turned 22 last month, is a former top-rated rospect whom many had expected to be the Braves’ primary catcher this season, after the team traded slugger Evan Gattis to Houston.
But Bethancourt lost playing time in the first weeks of the season to then hot-hitting veteran A.J. Pierzynski, 38, who was signed as a free agent last winter — to serve not only as a mentor and backup to the rookie, but also to give the Braves an option to play much more than a regular backup should Bethancourt struggle.
In parts of two seasons with the Braves, plus one at-bat in 2013, Bethancourt has a .228 average with six doubles, one homer, 18 RBIs and a .252 OBP and .536 OPS in 61 games (222 plate appearances).
Former Braves general manager Frank Wren and his top assistant were fired in October, and the front-office regime, led by Hart and holdover assistant general manager John Coppolella, did not much care that the strong-armed Bethancourt was once the Braves’ No. 1 prospect and the top-rated catching prospect in baseball. It was time to produce.
His development stalled some in recent seasons, and the Braves said before spring training that Bethancourt would not be handed the primary catching job, that he would instead have to prove he was ready for it. He hasn’t done that.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has said numerous times that he wasn’t concerned with Bethancourt’s offense, and that he just wanted him to focus on improving his game-calling and defensive work. So far, he’s fell significantly short of team officials’ expectations in those areas, and will have to improve to remain a part of the team’s future.
Larvarnway, 27, hit .268 (11-for-41) with two homers, eight RBIs and an .851 OPS in 12 games for Gwinnett, after starting the season with Baltimore’s major league team. He cleared waivers and outrighted to the minor leagues by the Orioles after going 3-for-28 (.107) in 10 games.
Lavarnway exercised his right to become a free agency, then signed a minor league deal with the Braves on May 30. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder also plays first base and spent parts of the 2011-2014 seasons with the Red Sox, batting .201 with five homers and 34 RBIs in 97 games (301 plate appearances).