Evan Gattis has proven he can hit but should he be on the 25 man roster this year?
Going into spring training this year the question most were focused on was who would replace Chipper Jones at third base. While that contest continues – I see Juan Francisco slightly ahead – another decision moved up manager Fredi Gonzalez‘ list; what to do with Evan Gattis.
Gattis’ story is oft referenced and quite inspiring. Essentially he found his way back to baseball after a long personal journey and he still knows how to hit; and he can hit at any level. His minor league numbers have been consistently good and this spring his slash of .378/.400/.676/1.076 with two homers and five doubles an ISO of .298 shined a media spotlight on him. As a result fans are clamoring for his inclusion on the roster and within the camp the Skipper gets asked regularly about it. The problem is, since he won’t be starting at any position is now the right time?
Evan Gattis has always been a catcher. He’s built like a catcher with a strong lower half and he has a plus arm. He’s shown he has good basic backstop skills and that he’s likely better suited for that job than the outfield spot he’s been working on to give the Braves an option there. The arrival of the Upton brothers and with Jordan Schafer likely to make the squad along with Reed Johnson however, there’s no room in the outfield for him this year, which bring us back to catching.
The Braves signed Gerald Laird to a two year deal as their backup catcher after the departure of David Ross and added Matt Pagnozzi to back up Laird while Brian McCann recovers from his shoulder surgery. Pagnozzi is a typical backup catcher, an experienced game caller who’ll produce defense and occasional offense. The key part of that equation that Gattis lacks is experience at calling a game. Since his return to baseball and signing by the Braves he’s caught a grand total of 114 games; 35 in rookie league, 52 in A, 10 in A+ and 17 in AA. At those levels you can get by with inexperienced game calling, they are after all learning levels. In the majors calling a game is a lot more important. This was highlighted yesterday when Mike Minor was soundly whipped on by the Pirates. After the game Minor told David O’Brien of the AJC:
“I don’t know, it’s just one of those things where I threw a lot of fastballs again, a lot of first-pitch fastballs, and we didn’t throw many off-speed pitches. . . We didn’t go inside a lot to righties. So those things will be different during the season.”
Asked if that strategy was the plan going into Wednesday’s game, Minor said, “We really don’t talk about it. It’s kind of just like, whatever Evan puts down. I didn’t shake (off signals) many times, maybe twice because I wanted to throw a certain pitch. But most of the time it’s whatever he puts down to throw. Evan’s never really faced a lot of these teams, so he’s just kind of going with the flow and I tell him, whatever he thinks just put it down.”
The last sentence of the last paragraph says it all “. . . Evan’s never really faced a lot of these teams, so he’s just kind of going with the flow.” That translates to he doesn’t yet have the experience to make pitch decisions against major league teams. Without that experience he can’t be major league ready and he can’t get that experience sitting on the bench while Laird catches. Game calling can’t be learned by osmosis, you have to call games to learn and the best place for that is at Gwinnett where the games don’t mean as much and mistakes are allowed.
That’s A Wrap
Our hot catching prospect Christian Bethancourt is a plus plus defender who has not figured out how to hit well enough to be an everyday major league catcher. He’s still just 21 however and more minor league time learning how to hit wouldn’t be a bad thing. I believe the emergence of Evan Gattis mature bat gives the Braves a really sound option if negotiations with McCann fail to end with a contract. I’ve said before that if McCann has the year I expect he will earn a contract a lot bigger and longer than the Braves are willing to give. Evan Gattis is not a major league ready catcher yet. He may not hit as well as BMac yet. But a year at Gwinnett will make him better defensively and give him more at bats at a higher level so he’s definitely ready to hit at a major league level next year. Instead of rushing Bethancourt up in 2014 the Braves could well use Gattis to replace McCann keeping Laird on hand as the backup with Eddie Perez to teach Gattis the finer points of the art. Catching is primarily a defensive position and Bethancourt has the edge there but a good offensive catcher is a rare thing. If Gattis can – as I expect – become that kind of player, the loss of McCann need not an leave offensive void. If I were making the decision Gattis would start the year as Gwinnett’s catcher and Pagnozzi in Atlanta backing up Laird until BMac returns. Having Gattis in Atlanta early in the season does neither he or the Braves any long term good. Making him a solid defensive catcher as well as an offensive threat does. What’s your take; Gattis up to ride the bench for two weeks or starting for Gwinnett?