As we inch closer to Opening Day, we have seen the release of top prospect lists all over the Internet. However, we have to be very careful when looking at these lists and trying to extrapolate fantasy value from them. While fantasy value has a tendency to match up to some extent, defense is one of those skills which can most drastically bump a player up these lists without having the bat to match. Today's example came after reading about him being picked in the first round of Craig's minor league draft, Christian Bethancourt of the Atlanta Braves.
Where He Has Ranked This Year
Baseball America: #3, Atlanta
Baseball Prospectus: Not Released Yet
Bullpen Banter: #6, Atlanta
Jonathan Mayo, MLB.com: #2, Atlanta
John Sickels, Minor League Ball: #13, Atlanta
Marc Hulet, Fangraphs: #3, Atlanta
What Lead Him To Rank So Highly
The key with Bethancourt is and continues to be his defensive skills. His arm is already considered to be elite, and there have been multiple reports on him posting sub 1.90 pop-times from behind the plate. He has caught 38% of runners attempting to steal over his career, and while it's not always a great judgment on the catcher, it would have been good for the 5th best rate amongst MLB starters last year.
Bethancourt needs a bit more work based on the reports I have read, but his defense is either ready for the Majors, or close to it. There have been a number of players who have made it to the majors recently where they are essentially catchers-in-name-only, but Bethancourt won't be one. He will be able to affect the game with his defense, as he should be able to minimize the running game quite a bit.
What Drops His Value for Fantasy Owners
Well, practically everything else in his game at the moment. Bethancourt does not seem to provide any value at the plate at all. Part of this seems to stem from him being rushed despite not dominating at a level, as he was sent to AA last year at the age of 20. He has never hit more than five home runs in a season or hit more than twenty four extra base hits in total in a season, but Mike Newman of Roto Scouting mentioned in his report from 2010 that there have been rave reviews about his power in the past. While not a great indicator, you would hope to see at least some semblance of power for him to be fantasy relevant. Also, he seems almost allergic to the idea of taking a walk, as he has not posted a walk rate above 4% since debuting stateside. While his strikeout rate isn't terrible (15.6% last year), it's also not what you want to see out of a hitter who isn't providing power either. Reports on his bat speed and performance in batting practice have been solid, and point to a player who could figure it out and provide solid value, but it hasn't really shown up just yet.
The key to remember with Bethancourt is that these rankings all include the value of his defense, which cannot be ignored. However, based on the profile he has shown to this point, it is extremely unlikely to find a league where he will likely be a starting catcher when he reaches the majors. Of course, as with all prospects, it could click one day and have him turn the corner. The key to remember with Bethancourt is that he will continue to get opportunities to try, and even if he were to spend the next two seasons at AA would still be on pace with the normal age-level scale. He will likely see time at some point in the next couple of seasons in the majors given that the Braves have added him to the 40-man roster, but he will likely be best suited to keep getting as many at bats as he can in the minors to work on his approach.