October 2, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann (16) at the batting cage before playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What to Expect in Brian McCann’s Absence

With Brian McCann undergoing surgery on his right shoulder in early December, the Braves are looking at being without the six-time All-Star for at least a month to begin the 2013 season.

In previous seasons, a McCann injury or stint on the DL hardly spelled disaster, as Atlanta boasted one of the game’s most talented backups in David Ross. Ross, who even started over a then “healthy” McCann in the 2012 NL Wild Card Game, gave Atlanta the ability to rest McCann whenever needed without any letdown in the lineup. That luxury was put to an end in November when Ross signed a multi-year deal with the Red Sox, leaving the Braves in need of a backup catcher.

Frank Wren and his staff acted quickly, signing Gerald Laird to a two-year deal, giving Brian McCann peace of mind in his recovery process. Laird, who was a member of last season’s World Series losing Detroit Tigers, will serve as Atlanta’s primary option behind the plate in early April, and will provide Fredi Gonzalez with decent at bats towards the bottom of the order.

Laird spent the last two seasons serving as the backup for two of the more respected catchers in the league in Alex Avila (2012, Detroit) and Yadier Molina (2011 St. Louis)—both World Series teams in his year with them— and while he has never been among the best in terms of offensive production by catchers, Laird is regarded as a solid defensive catcher and a veteran presence behind the plate. After the 2012 season saw Laird generate a .282 batting average in 174 at bats, it is clear that the 33 year-old still has some productive years left in him. While it will be difficult to replace David Ross both on the field and in the locker room, Laird should provide Atlanta with a good dose of veteran stability during McCann’s DL stint.

Behind Laird, the Braves have a few interesting options. Atlanta recently signed Matt Pagnozzi to serve as Laird’s backup in April. Pagnozzi, who at age 30 has bounced from team to team, mostly serving in the minors, likely won’t see any significant time at the big league level for Atlanta in 2013. His signing merely added stability to the short-staffed catching core until McCann’s return, giving the Braves another option in a guy who has some major league experience. It seems, though, that the Braves could have taken the opportunity to promote within, and give one or both of its young catching prospects a taste of the majors.

Evan Gattis, who the Braves drafted in 2010, has shown some promise in his progression through the minors, and has given reason to believe that he might be a viable option for the Braves in either left field or at catcher in the very near future. Gattis hit .303 with 16 homeruns this year in the Venezuelan Winter League, and has raised a few eyebrows with his performance in High A Lynchburg and AA Mississippi. Giving Gattis the month of April to work behind Gerald Laird and develop an understanding of the big league game could only benefit his stock in the long run. He might only see ten or less plate appearances, but the experience could go a long way in giving Gattis the fast track to the majors.

Another young catching prospect that the Braves could give the nod to is Christian Bethancourt. At only 21 years old, Bethancourt has three years of minor league experience and could really benefit from a brief stay with the big club. In his short professional career, Bethancourt has already earned the reputation as a strong defensive catcher with a cannon behind the plate. While his offensive numbers have dropped steadily with each promotion through the minors, there is reason to believe, based on his .303 average in Rome during the 2011 season, that his best baseball is ahead of him and only time and experience will make him better. Both Bethancourt and Gattis will have to prove their merit over the next few years in the minors in order to earn a sustained role in Atlanta, but with the unique situation the Braves face in McCann’s time of recovery, early April might be the perfect time to throw one of these guys to the fire and see what comes out.

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  • Lee Trocinski

    Unless you’re willing to prepare Gattis as the future catcher, I don’t see him up in April. He’s going to learn more in Spring Training than the regular season, plus someone at his age and caliber should be playing everyday, whether it’s the majors or minors. He would also lose time getting used to playing the outfield, which looks to be his more likely landing spot.

    Evaluating Bethancourt based on average is severely overstating his bat. He walks about 3% of his PAs and his power has not developed yet. Even his second Rome stint only rated average overall, while his other stints were 30-40% below average. Catchers don’t need to hit much, but I don’t see Bethancourt being much better offensively than Janish was last year, which will not help him in the long run.

    It will either be Pagnozzi or Jose Yepez up in April, veteran presences who don’t have any development to stunt. The 30 or so PAs from that spot won’t kill the team, so there’s no need to rush CB or Gattis at this point.

    • Mat Batts

      I agree that there is no reason to rush either guy this early in their career but all the Braves are looking for in April is a guy that can give Laird a rest every 4 days or so. Bethancourt might not hit well enough right now to warrant a spot in a major league lineup, but who says he ever will? In my opinion, you would be willing to roll the dice on his offensive output in order to have a strong defensive catcher to go to off the bench. Again, it’s only one month and is seems like a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by filling a roster need and giving a young guy his first chance.

    • Me

      I think Gattis should be considered. His offensive numbers are really good, but he’s also 5 years old than his competition. He’s already into the years where he should be getting his peak MLB numbers, so get him some at bats in the majors and see what happens. A month in the bigs isn’t going to set him back if he doesn’t stick.

      Bethancourt though.. young and flat out not ready.

  • fireboss

    Bethancourt is very young and his bat isn’t close to ready. If Gattis is seen with the big team this year which I think is possible it will be as an outfielder. He’s not close to being a major league ready defensive backstop and at his age his future is the outfield if his bat continues to be as productive as it has been. I watched Yepez in spring last year and he seemed a solid defender, I was surprised Boscan was called up last year as Yepez does hit – not a lot but better than Boscan ever did. Pagnozzi looks like Boscan’s replacement as a back up vet to the two other backup vets.