The Rays made one of the first splashes of the trade season this weekend acquiring Christian Bethancourt from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for prospects Cal Stevenson and Christian Fernandez.
Kicking things off with Bethancourt, he’s a 30-year old veteran with a plethora of baseball experience. His first season in professional baseball was all the way back in 2008, and he made his big league debut in 2013 with Atlanta.
He was strictly a catcher in his early years, but then found himself playing all over the diamond as his career progressed. Bethancourt played 2B, LF, and RF once he was traded to San Diego in 2016. The Padres even experimented with Bethancourt as a pitcher in 2017! He threw 41.2 innings in AAA that season, but was not effective.
In 2019, Bethancourt found himself playing in the KBO where he posted a .712 OPS in 53 games. After this long windy road of position and league changes, he finally was able to break though in MLB again this season with the Oakland Athletics.
On the surface, Christian’s 2022 season looks more average than good. He’s slashing .249/.298/.385 (99 wRC+) with four homeruns in 182 plate appearances this year. Digging under the hood a bit is where things get interesting though.
Bethancourt has not actualized much power so far this year, but he has been hitting the ball very hard. His barrel rate, max exit velocity, and average exit velocity are all in the 90th percentile or above this season. He also fares very well in almost every Statcast expected statistic, meaning he is hitting the ball awfully well.
If you compare Bethancourt’s expected wOBA to his actual wOBA on the season, he has actually been the unluckiest qualified hitter in baseball. This all goes to the say that he is very capable of crushing the ball, and has been doing just that in 2022, but the results just haven’t come to fruition yet.
All of this sounds great, and you may be asking yourself “So what’s the catch?” It is true that Bethancourt has some power in his bat, but he does have some flaws too. His walk rate and chase rate on the season are at below average marks, and so is his contact rate. This is a hitter who isn’t all that polished around the strike zone, but when he gets it boy does it fly. Here are a couple of barreled balls from him this season:
Christian Bethancourt could be a sneaky good bench bat/backup C & 1B deadline addition. It’s his first year back in MLB since 2017 and he is crushing the ball. 90th+ percentile in Barrel rate, Max EV & avg EV. Rays are second to last in team barrel rate this year pic.twitter.com/St7kHOsNpP— Rays Metrics (@RaysMetrics) July 8, 2022
As for the defensive side of things, Bethancourt has played 31 games at first base, 14 games at catcher, and 9 games at DH so far this year. The Rays will likely use him all over the field just like Oakland did.
It’s tough to know just how much of an impact he’ll be able to make defensively, as defensive metrics take a while to stabilize and this is Bethancourt’s first season back in MLB since 2017. Statcast’s framing metric has pegged Christian as below average so far this year, but again it has only been 14 games back there for him, so take this with a grain of salt.
Overall, Bethancourt will likely play a versatile role on this Rays team where he sees time at catcher, first base, DH, and who knows, maybe even left field. He’ll also likely start in a fair share of games against left-handed starters, and also be deployed as a pinch hitter at times where Kevin Cash is looking for an extra base hit off the bench.
It’s also worth noting that the 30-year old Bethancourt has zero minor league options left and has three more years of control remaining after this season. If he plays well down the stretch, he could factor into the catching conversation for next year’s Rays team. Mike Zunino is still multiple weeks away from returning this season and will be a free agent at the end of the year.
To land Bethancourt the Rays parted with 25-year old outfielder Cal Stevenson and 22-year old right-hander Christian Fernandez. Stevenson was acquired for Austin Pruitt a few years ago and is enjoying a solid year in AAA. He has posted a .376 OBP (albeit without much power) so far this season and plays above average outfield defense.
Fernandez too has had a successful 2022, he’s thrown to a 2.79 ERA and 36.1 K% in 58 innings at Low-A Charelston. Both players are not ranked inside the Rays top 30 prospects at any national outlet, and are also both eligible for the Rule 5 draft at the end of this season.
Overall, this is a small scale move in which the Rays are trading two players who don’t have clear paths to contributing to the big league team in exchange for a versatile hitter with big power skills.
It will be very interesting to watch how the ever so creative Rays deploy Bethancourt as the team pushes for a playoff spot down the stretch.