GOODYEAR, Ariz. – There, out on the pitcher’s mound in the middle innings of a sparsely attended, sun-baked Cactus League game between a couple of clubs that finished dead last in the standings last season, stood one of the coolest things imaginable in Major League Baseball: A potential two-way player, vying to become the first man since World War II to see semi-regular work for a big-league team as both a pitcher and a catcher.
Christian Bethancourt’s transition from working behind the plate to working 60’6? away from it, as detailed by Jorge L. Ortiz earlier this spring, began after he flashed a mid-90s fastball in 1 2/3 innings of mop-up work in two blowouts last season. A 25-year-old with a reputation for good defense behind the plate but without the offensive numbers to support regular playing time, Bethancourt worked on his pitching mechanics in the offseason and threw seven innings’ worth of winter ball in Panama. He did not entirely eschew catching this spring, but focused on honing his delivery and developing his secondary pitches to compete for a job in the San Diego bullpen.
Plenty of live-armed players transition to pitching in the minors and find success. But unlike most of them, Bethancourt actually reached the Majors as a position player first. And while guys like the A’s Sean Doolittle (a former first baseman), the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen (catcher), and the Rangers’ Matt Bush (infielder) gave up on their old gigs when moving to the mound, the Padres intend to maximize Bethancourt’s unusual versatility by using him at catcher and in the outfield – where he made 12 appearances last season – around his pitching duties.
If all goes to plan, Bethancourt will become the first two-way player since Brooks Kieschnick made 42 appearances out of the Brewers’ bullpen and started three games in left field and four more at DH in 2004. The last player to appear in at least three games as both a pitcher and a catcher in the same season was Mike Ryba for the Red Sox in 1942.
“He provides a unique versatility to our club,” said manager Andy Green. “Obviously if he’s pitching in the back end of our bullpen and becomes a seventh, eighth, or ninth inning guy, that’s going to take precedence over pinch-hit at-bats. But days he’s down, days he’s not capable of pitching, he’s able to catch and able to pinch-hit. He probably slots in as a third catcher, not the primary backup catcher, but there’s opportunity to use him there over the season as well.”
Facing the Reds on Wednesday, Bethancourt allowed one run – his first in four outings this spring – on a pair of singles and a sacrifice fly in one inning of work. He threw mostly a mix of four- and two-seam fastballs, with the former registering as high as 96 mph on scouts’ radar guns and the latter sitting around 90 mph, and peppered in some changeups and sliders.
(Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports)
The outing marked Bethancourt’s first Cactus League appearance since catching the final three innings of a game against the Indians on Sunday.
“The beginning of spring training, the first two or three weeks, I was doing a lot of catching,” Bethancourt said. “Then I was kind of resting from catching, doing more pitching drills to focus and get more familiar with the (pitcher’s fielding practice), bunt defense, just to get more familiar with the pitching actions. The Padres have managed me very well so that I don’t get tired doing one or the other, and so I’m able to have enough energy to pitch and catch at the same time.”
If he succeeds as a reliever and cracks a spot in the Padres bullpen, Bethancourt offers the club remarkable flexibility. A pitcher who doubles as a third catcher and triples as a sixth outfielder would afford his manager a slew of unusual ways to optimize matchups, from those as simple as the ability to use a second-string catcher to pinch-hit without incurring heartburn to some that would allow Green to shuttle Bethancourt back and forth to an outfield spot to exploit opponents’ platoon splits.
“It’s something exciting, something I’m looking forward to,” Bethancourt said. “I’m doing it to help the team any way I can – catching, pinch-hitter, pitching one inning, facing one batter coming in from the outfield. I like to be ready for any situation, and I feel like I’ve prepared myself well.”
Still, Bethancourt’s development into a two-way player may not even prove the most innovative practice in San Diego this season. Early in camp, Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune asked Green about a Baseball Prospectus post suggesting the Padres use an “opener” to pitch the first couple of innings of games before turning the game over to a multi-inning pitcher, preferably of the opposite hand. At the time, Green joked, “We got a mole going to Baseball Prospectus?”
As of Wednesday, the Padres still have a group of at least five pitchers vying for two spots in their starting rotation behind veterans Jered Weaver, Clayton Richard and Jhoulys Chacin. None of the options come with much of a recent track record as successful big-league starters, and Green did not dismiss the possibility that the Padres could try a different approach to negotiating their pitching staff in 2017.
Andy Green (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
“How we use our staff will be predicated on who makes the club,” he said. “If you end up with guys that have the capability of starting in your bullpen, then the possibility to mix and match if you’ve got lefties, righties, it becomes an easier, more distinct possibility. We’re open to anything, but I don’t think we’re trying to jam anything down the throat of baseball right now.”
But asked if the Padres, facing little in the way of expectations and featuring a large contingent of young and untested players hungry for roster spots, make fertile ground for experimentation, Green rejected the notion. The Padres, like all teams, aim to win baseball games, and any atypical strategies they attempt this season will be employed in only that pursuit. In other words: They’re not about to shake things up for the sake of shaking things up, but they might shake things up if they think it’ll help them win.
“I don’t go into the season considering this an experiment,” he said. “I go into the season considering how to beat the team we’re facing that night. If there’s a way to do it that’s different than what has been done in baseball over the last couple of years, then we’ll explore that possibility if we think it fits our players best, and we think it fits for the longterm health of our players.”
Read or Share this story: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2017/03/san-diego-padres-christian-bethancourt-trying-interesting-stuff-mlb