So … we’re back. Still mostly confused.

Last year when A.J. Preller took over as GM, he inherited a roster with a slight logjam at catcher. There was Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal at the major-league level, and Austin Hedges waiting on the farm. Then, like 17 trades later, the Padres had a more manageable logjam: Derek Norris as the main guy with Tim Federowicz as the (soon-to-be-injured) backup, and Hedges still on the farm. Rocky Gale‘s always around.

You wanna talk about logjams? Check out the current catcher situation. After a solid season, Norris is still the main guy. Hedges, who was called up last year, is also there and so is new guy Josmil Pinto. That’s a lot of catchers; certainly don’t need anymore, no no.

Oh, okay. Another catcher. That’s interesting.

The good news is that Christian Bethancourt is 24 years old and just a few years removed from top prospect status. He also has an arm that’s a notch better than Austin Hedges’, he’s really athletic, and he came dirt cheap. There’s a decent chance he finds some success as a change-of-scenery guy, and his floor is a strong-armed backup.

The bad news is that Bethancourt’s minor-league OPS is actually lower than Hedges’; he’s hit just .219/.245/.290 in 278 plate appearances in Atlanta with eight walks, 60 strikeouts, and no power; and his defense, outside of the arm, draws mixed reviews (at best). Here’s a table, with per-pitch framing numbers from last season (you knew it was coming):

Player CSAA (rank out of 68) Framing Runs
Austin Hedges 0.021 (5th) 8.4
Christian Bethancourt -0.013 (54th) -4.9

That’s a relatively small sample, of course, but Hedges has a long track-record of pitch framing accolades (both by scouting and numbers) and Bethancourt, well, doesn’t. Further, most catchers—sans Derek Norris, apparently—don’t improve their framing numbers significantly, and Bethancourt, who has garnered various knocks for work ethic and concentration issues, might not be the best bet to buck the trend. He also posted a -0.017 CSAA in 2014, good for 60th in the league out of 76 catchers with at least 1,000 chances.

Bethancourt might look the part back there, and his arm’s a major plus, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned about catcher defense over the past few years, it’s that framing clearly outweighs controlling the running game and blocking pitches. And Hedges has a better defensive reputation across the board than Bethancourt (besides the arm … and they’re close in that dept.).

So what gives? Why go out and acquire a catcher like Bethancourt when you’ve got three perfectly capable guys on the current 40-man roster? Perhaps Preller likes Bethancourt, at least as a backup, and plans on dealing one of Hedges or Norris to improve the team elsewhere (like, say … shortstop). Perhaps he wants to send Hedges back to Triple-A for more seasoning and doesn’t trust Pinto defensively as a backup. Perhaps he just liked Bethancourt so much he had to pick him up given the asking price, and he plans to figure out how all these pieces mesh later. That last one sounds a little like last offseason.

Those are all reasonable scenarios, I suppose. The key with Preller is that you know there’s more coming, so you have to resist getting too antsy until everything’s set in stone—heck, even then, there’s probably three more trades on the way. That’s not a defense of this deal necessarily—I’d rather use Casey Kelly and Ricardo Rodriguez to acquire something else, and if Preller needed another catcher, someone like Tyler Flowers just signed a two-year, $5.3 million deal (with the Braves, coincidentally). It’s just tough to get a grip on a plan when the guy in charge is probably five steps ahead, and it’s still too early to cast Preller off as a lost cause, overall. So we’ll wait until everything shakes out and meet back, right here.


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