With Gattis, Braves aim to extend dish consistency
Laird will provide backstop backup with prospect Bethancourt waiting in the wings
ATLANTA -- After Javy Lopez earned an All-Star selection in 2003 during his final season in Atlanta, Johnny Estrada became the Braves' starting catcher in '04 and immediately earned his own invitation to participate in the Midsummer Classic.
When Estrada suffered a concussion the following year, Brian McCann arrived at the Major League level to begin a career that included seven All-Star selections within a span of eight seasons.
All told, a Braves catcher has been a part of the National League's All-Star roster during nine of the past 11 seasons. But with McCann now wearing Yankees pinstripes, Atlanta will turn to Evan Gattis to provide the dependability the club received from its catchers for more than a decade.
"McCann has been a mainstay in our lineup for a long time," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You never know what to expect when you have to replace a guy like that. But this gives [Gattis] a chance to catch and we all know what kind of power potential he has with his bat."
With the start of Spring Training a little more than a month away, the Braves are planning to enter this season with Gattis as their primary catcher. Gerald Laird could see more playing time than the average backup catcher.
But the Braves saw enough from Gattis as a rookie last year to believe he is capable of handling backstop duties on a regular basis.
"I think [Gattis'] calling games and knowledge of calling games continued to grow, because he was exposed to the Major League level for the first time," general manager Frank Wren said. "We saw enough of his catching skills early in the season to know he could handle this job."
With Gattis and Laird in place, it appears highly regarded prospect Christian Bethancourt will spend another season continuing to improve his suspect offensive potential at the Minor League level.
While he still appears to be considered the club's catcher of the future, Bethancourt has the chance to continue making the progress he displayed while hitting .277 with 12 home runs and a .741 OPS in 90 games with Double-A Mississippi last year. The 22-year-old prospect's .305 on-base percentage in his 2013 campaign was only impressive given that his limited plate discipline had produced a .277 mark while playing at the same level in '12.
Given his tremendous defensive skills, which drew rave reviews from former Gold Glove Award-winning catcher and current Cardinals manager Mike Matheny two years ago, Bethancourt does not need to develop into a great offensive player to be valuable at the Major League level. But given that he has drawn just one walk every 22.8 plate appearances during his professional career, he could benefit from spending at least most or all of this season with Triple-A Gwinnett.
At this time last year, there was some doubt surrounding Gattis' defensive skills. But while handling the primary catching duties as McCann missed the regular season's first six weeks, Gattis quieted his critics by proving he has the footwork and arm strength necessary to at least be serviceable behind the plate.
"Our pitchers really liked throwing to Gattis," Gonzalez said. "Maybe now that he feels even more comfortable back there, his bat will have even more of an impact in our lineup."
While hitting .243 with 21 home runs and a .771 OPS in 382 plate appearances last year, Gattis made enough of an impact that the Braves made every attempt to keep his bat in the lineup as often as possible. He served as the club's starting left fielder for most of September and throughout the NL Division Series against the Dodgers.
As the primary catcher during last season's first six weeks, Gattis hit .261 with seven home runs and a .872 OPS. In the 153 plate appearances he compiled through the end of May, he batted .281 with 12 homers and a .952 OPS.
After struggling while seeing his playing time diminish over the next few weeks, Gattis strained his left oblique muscle on June 17 and missed nearly a month. He hit .215 and produced a .280 slugging percentage in 99 plate appearances from July 14-Aug. 30. This led Atlanta to send him to spend the final few days of the Minor League season with Gwinnett.
The decision to allow him to compile the at-bats he was not getting at the big league level proved to be wise. Gattis hit .255 with six home runs and a .780 OPS while starting 25 games in September.
If Gattis falters during his second big league season, the Braves have some insurance in the form of Laird, who hit .281 in 141 plate appearances last season. The 34-year-old Laird arrived in Atlanta last year and replaced some of the tremendous value David Ross had brought the Braves' clubhouse while serving as McCann's backup from 2009-12.