Yesterday Dennis Lin reported that the Padres and Christian Bethancourt are continuing to go full steam ahead with the potential conversion of Bethancourt as a unique hybrid of pitcher and position player. In the few weeks since it became known that the Padres were "exploring" the idea, Bethancourt has been working on a changeup and a slider, hit 97 with his fastball against live hitters, and is headed to the Panama Winter League for more work.
While having someone who can catch and play the outfield in addition to pitching would be quite the luxury, in this case it might be a necessity. It's still unknown whether the Padres envision Bethancourt as a Swiss Army Knife long term or whether his ability to play in the field and hit will just be something to lean on while he develops into a full-time pitcher; I imagine they're playing it by ear. Usually when players transition from playing a position to pitching, or vice versa, they do so before reaching the majors - like Trevor Hoffman - or after returning to the minors to start from scratch - Jason Lane and Rick Ankiel come to mind - but Bethancourt is out of options, so having him work as a jack of all trades in 2017 could be just a way to get the most out of his roster spot instead of him being essentially just like a Rule 5 selection, providing negative value while learning on the job and getting sporadic work.
I was wondering how much precedent Bethancourt's proposed role had, so I ran a bunch of Baseball Reference Play Index queries and, best as I can tell, the last player to legitimately split time between pitching and playing a position for longer than a season was Babe Ruth. Since then a small handful of players have done so in just one season as they were making a permanent switch, but one player who didn't quite fit that bill stood out to me. Mike Ryba did double duty as a catcher and a pitcher in the low minors for several years in the late 1920s and early '30s, then focused on pitching and went on to have appear in ten major league seasons as a reliever and occasional spot starter. He did, however, serve as something of an emergency catcher for three of those seasons; he played seven games behind the plate for the Cardinals in 1936 (four games, starting two) and '37 (three games, starting one), then three more in 1941 with the Red Sox.
It remains to be seen what niche in history Christian Bethancourt will carve out for himself; it's still extremely early in the process. Although the concept of him being the ultimate utility player seems like just about the coolest thing ever to me, I'm trying not to get ahead of myself. The season is a long way away, and he still has yet to pitch competitively in the winter league or spring training, so at this point it's anybody's guess whether this experiment is still even a thing on Opening Day; a lot can happen in five months. I imagine if he remains healthy, they'll stick with it; both Bethancourt and the team seem committed to the idea, and the Padres can afford to carry him and use him in at least very low-leverage situations since he'll have additional value between those appearances.
Christian Bethancourt has been up to 97 mph in bullpens and is developing a changeup. He'll soon begin pitching in the Panama Winter League.— Dennis Lin (@sdutdennislin) October 27, 2016
@PadresJagoff Apparently, he's got a changeup that's better than expected and is trying to learn a slider that's a longgggg way off.— AJ Cassavell (@AJCassavell) October 27, 2016
@woedoctor He's still a unicorn... which I officially vote to become the title of his position.— AJ Cassavell (@AJCassavell) October 27, 2016