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.