March 5, 2012; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt (68) in the game against the Houston Astros at Osceola County Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Debate: Atlanta’s Future Catcher? (Part 1)

There is a debate raging, and not just among our staff, but all across Braves’ Country.  The central question being debated is simply this – Who should be the main catcher in the 2014 season for the Atlanta Braves? You’ll notice I didn’t say, who would be, but who should be.  Some are convinced they have the answer, but some of us are not so sure.  Julien Benjamin and myself will be doing a two-part debate looking seriously at that very question.

Julien contends that Evan Gattis should be the Braves’ every day catcher, with a platoon situation possible.  I contend that there is a better option in the Braves’ minor league system, namely Christian Bethancourt.  In the debate, we’ll give our analysis of each catcher’s strengths and weaknesses, and try to make an educated guess about who’ll be directing pitchers for the Braves in 2014.

Now some of you may already be asking.. Wait a second, what about Brian McCann? Yeah, we knew you’d ask that question, and yes there is a small chance that Brian McCann is back in a Braves’ uniform come 2014.  It’s a small chance though, and for the purposes of our debate we’ll be assuming we won’t see McCann in 2014.  We’ll explain that as well.

[Editorial Note:  I cannot speak for Julien, but I should say that while I don't believe we'll see McCann back with the Braves next year, I DO hope we will.  Who in their right mind would want to lose a catcher who's not only been an offensive juggernaut, but has been part of the heart and soul of this team for years?]


No More Attack from the BMac

The short and simple on Brian McCann is that he’s being paid considerably, will likely want more, and his contract is up at the end of the year.  I believe the Braves will make Brian a Qualifying Offer in order to get an extra draft pick next year, and there is a good chance Brian will end up in the American League as a DH.  Some of that is fact, some conjecture, and some just based on talk floating around MLB.

Of course Brian probably wants to remain a Brave.  He hasn’t spoken publicly about that, if at all, but he’s been in Atlanta a long time, and is a fixture in the clubhouse.  The politics of baseball though have changed, and when money is at issue most teams and players do what’s best for both.  I hope I’m pleasantly surprised, but Brian can get much more money on the open market than what he’s currently being paid, and the Braves can ill afford to pay him what he’ll be worth.

I’d love to see Brian stay.  He’s been paid $41,340,166 to date, is currently being paid $12 mil, will probably ask for more, and certainly deserves more!  Worth every penny, Brian’s nine years in Atlanta have produced a batting average of .279, an On Base % of .350, a Slugging % of .477, and a total OPS (On Base + Slugging) of .827.

This year alone, despite coming back from injury and missing some of the early season, Brian is hitting on a line of .270/.343/.502/.845.  Brian’s entire career [so far] has been spent in Atlanta, and it’s been one whale of a performance, but gone are the days when players stay with one team their entire career.  While his defense has always been about average, he is one of the best hitting catchers in any league.


Three’s A Crowd!

Gerald Laird is a veteran, already prime time, and he’s been a major help all year platooning with Brian McCann and Evan Gattis.  Despite his ability to handle young pitchers, arguably as well as BMac, Laird is not really a standout catcher, nor is his bat anything the Braves couldn’t do without.  If he had a hot bat, he might well get the everyday job for the Braves in 2014, but he doesn’t.  He’ll essentially be a third man, and three’s a crowd!  Yes, the Braves had three catcher’s this season, but don’t expect to keep seeing that.

Laird is a 33 year old, eleven year veteran, and his days are likely numbered, especially as a catcher.  Laird is signed through 2014, but he could well be traded at some point to an organization in dire need of a backup catcher.  It might be good to keep Laird for depth in the event that Brian McCann is no longer a Brave next year, because we still don’t know how the catcher situation will form up.


The Future of Braves’ Catching?

The other option for the Braves, currently, is Christian Bethancourt.  The young, 22 year old Panamanian catcher is currently playing for the Mississippi Braves in the Braves’ minor league system having been in the minors since 2008, but having moved up rather quickly through the ranks.  The biggest knock on Bethancourt has been his lack of offensive production, and specifically his lack of power.  Scouts believe he has natural power, but he hasn’t put that power on display sufficient enough, so far, to get a serious look for the big club.  That appears to be changing lately though, and Bethancourt should get a serious look come the spring of 2014.  A look at some of his recent splits below show this…

Total 85 367 339 40 96 20 0 12 44 11 6 15 55 .283 .311 .448 .760 152 7 2 4 7 1
Last 7 days 4 17 17 1 3 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 .176 .176 .176 .353 3 0 0 0 0 0
Last 28 days 20 90 85 10 25 4 0 4 9 2 2 3 10 .294 .322 .482 .805 41 1 1 0 1 1
Last 90 days 57 253 230 32 67 13 0 11 33 5 4 13 31 .291 .324 .491 .815 113 4 1 3 6 1
Home 47 196 183 23 56 11 0 4 24 6 5 6 25 .306 .326 .432 .758 79 5 1 3 3 0
Away 38 171 156 17 40 9 0 8 20 5 1 9 30 .256 .294 .468 .762 73 2 1 1 4 1
vs RHP as RHB 79 274 255 69 18 0 7 44 7 50 .271 .289 .424 .712 108 4 2 4 6 0
vs LHP as RHB 39 93 84   27 2 0 5 14     8 5 .321 .376 .524 .900 44 3 0 0 1 1
April 12 46 44 6 15 4 0 1 5 3 1 1 6 .341 .356 .500 .856 22 0 0 1 0 0
May 17 73 70 4 16 3 0 0 6 3 1 1 18 .229 .247 .271 .518 19 3 1 0 1 0
June 18 76 69 9 17 3 0 3 8 1 1 4 16 .246 .284 .420 .704 29 1 0 2 1 0
July 18 82 71 11 23 6 0 4 16 2 1 6 5 .324 .358 .577 .935 41 2 0 1 4 0
August 20 90 85 10 25 4 0 4 9 2 2 3 10 .294 .322 .482 .805 41 1 1 0 1 1
2 outs, RISP 44 62 60   17 2 0 0 13     1 8 .283 .306 .317 .623 19 0 1 0 0 1
vs. Younger Pitchers 8 19 17 2 1 0 1 3 1 2 .118 .167 .353 .520 6 0 0 1 0 0
vs. Older Pitchers 84 348 322 94 19 0 11 55 14 53 .292 .319 .453 .772 146 7 2 3 7 1
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/27/2013.

As you’ll notice looking at the numbers in the table above, especially those I’ve highlighted in bold, Bethancourt has started to show some of the power that scouts have always said was the missing ingredient.  Granted, it could be considered a small sample-size, but the young catcher is clearly on an upswing.  In addition to noting those numbers, I’ll let my debate opponent’s own words help me make the case.  In a coming preview of some of our top prospects, regarding Bethancourt, Julien writes…

His swing has much more loft, and looks smoother now. And the results, .320/.357/.557/.914 (.311 babip), show that Christian has made much better contact, especially flexing his over-the-wall power (11 HR in 48 games). While his walk rate still isn’t good, it is better than what it was. And while it looks like Bethancourt may finally be able to post a good average at the plate, albeit at AA, the fact that he’s been able to hit HR is much more gratifying. After hearing talk of his power for years, it is great to finally see him show it in real games.

Julien’s scouting report is deadly accurate on Bethancourt, and you’ll definitely want to read the entire piece when it comes out tommorrow.  The part on Bethancourt perfectly makes the case for him finally getting some serious consideration for the starting catcher spot in 2014.  Bethancourt recently reached base 39 times to dramatically increase his average.

In addition to his offensive growth, his defensive skills as a catcher are without question.    He was rated Best Defensive Catcher in the Atlanta Braves system, after 2009, 2011, and 2012, and was chosen as the Best Defensive Catcher in the entire Southern League in 2012.  Christian will have to continue to perform like he has the last two months, and then continue to impress come the spring if he has any chance, but personally I like what the young catcher is doing.


The Problem With Evan Gattis

I’ve never been on what I call the El Oso Blanco bandwagon.  Don’t get me wrong!  Evan has some natural talent, and made the team in the spring when no one, even scouts, thought he would.  That said, I have not been that impressed with Evan’s mechanics at the bat, nor with his ability as a catcher or outfielder.  Couple that together with an odd past (not being judgmental, just saying) and thus, in my mind a shaky foundation for a future, and you have a player I’m not certain can be relied upon to be the everyday anything for the Atlanta Braves.  Granted, he hasn’t gotten nearly the playing time of late as he did in the 1st half, but he has nonetheless regressed, pitchers have figured him out now, and his numbers show it.

June 10 7 30 24 2 2 0 0 2 5 0 0 5 5 .083 .233 .333 .567
July 14 14 58 57 7 15 1 0 1 6 0 0 1 12 .263 .276 .333 .609
August 12 8 40 36 2 5 2 0 0 4 0 0 3 6 .139 .225 .194 .419

Provided by View Original Table

Generated 8/26/2013.

A look at Evan’s splits since June show a noticeable regression.  Again, while Gattis has not played as much in those months as in previous months, he’s had about an equal amount of games and plate appearances, and while July was not too bad a month, the numbers for him have slumped.  Defensively, Gattis also has issues with not blocking balls very well as catcher, making throwing errors and errors in judgement, and his outfield skills are shoddy at best as well.


Final Thoughts

Don’t get me wrong.  As I’ve said, Evan Gattis clearly has talent, but it’s raw and undisciplined, and the hunger we saw early in the season doesn’t seem to be there now.  I simply have growing doubts about him long-term, and feel strongly that Bethancourt is the future of Atlanta Braves catching.  My hope is that Bethancourt will get a good look in Spring, and show what I already feel is true ~ that he is simply a better all-around player than Evan Gattis.

I feel that even if we don’t see Bethancourt as the starter early in 2014 for the Braves, it won’t be long until we do.  If he’s not the everyday catcher in 2014 at some point, he should at least be in a platoon situation until he can prove what I feel is already true – that he’s a better choice long-term than Gattis.  He’s getting better each month, and cannot be overlooked for long.

I think the only caveat I would throw in with my argument, is that because Christian hasn’t displayed the power scouts hoped he would until recently, he’s remained in AA a touch longer than hoped for.  The Braves may want him to get some seasoning in AAA before being called up, but that’s the only caveat I’ll concede.  He wouldn’t be the first player who skipped AAA entirely because of needs and excellent abilities.

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  • Ken Carroll

    Gattis has a short, powerful swing that seems to have few holes. I believe his lack of consistent playing time, combined with his stint on the DL, has had more of an affect on his offense than MLB pitching “figuring him out.”

    It’s the same problem Schafer has now,as well. I believe both men will work themselves out of their lesser numbers if they receive enough in-game at-bats. In other words, I think Gattis is better than your analysis shows.

    In the meantime, I’m hoping that McCann can be signed. Losing B-Mac so soon after Chipper’s retirement would leave a gap off of the field as well as between the lines. This is a young club that needs veteran leadership from everyday players. If not McCann, then who steps into that role?

    • cheadrick

      My analysis simply shows a regression, and my feelings about Gattis’ ability to contribute long term are merely eye test, and gut reaction. I realize that I’m among the minority with regard to the white bear, but I’ll stick to my guns. If I see him the player everyone things he will be 3, even 2 years from now, I’ll apologize and say I was wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong, nor the first I was right :)

      • Ken Carroll

        Well, the good news is that at least one of us will be mostly right, anyway. And, admit it; you hope it’s me, too, don’tcha? :-)

        • cheadrick

          haha yeah, when talking about McCann I do. I hope he’s around for a long time to come. I just don’t see it. Never know with Wren and Co. though. They do things all the time that baffle. Thanks for all the comments Ken.

    • cheadrick

      Not sure you can replace Bmac’s leadership. There are probably a number of leaders in the clubhouse that personality wouldn’t make immediately evident ~ I think Jhey has that capacity, and Tim Hudson, but it’s an intangible really that’s hard to define. BMac would be missed, and I believe, will be.

    • Matt Talbert

      Heyward (natural leader), J-Up, Huddy (if back), CJ, Ugs..even BJ can serve as a leader even if he’s inconsistently bad.

  • fireboss

    I’m leaning heavily on Bethancourt’s glove and arm experience behind the plate to make up for any offensive short comings. If you think that isn’t a fair swap I’d point you to the Cardinals and Yadier Molina. If you catch everything thrown at your, shut down the running game and understand how to sequence pitches a 240/300/360 line with 12 homers is fine. That’s my gripe with Gattis. I don’t mind his history except the years that he wasn’t learning how to catch and call a game. Gattis will hit 245 with 20 homers and 80 RBI and his arm is strong but his defense screams back up. I said and wrote this early in the season when everyone ask who’s going to Gwinnett. Like Chris I think he’s a man without a position; awful in the outfield, blocked at 1st base and just okay there anyway; a man who should be 23 and learning but is 26 and forced to learn on the job. For the Astros, Cubs, Mariners, and others who have time to wait that’s okay. But for a team that’s built to win now he’s literally in the way. If he’s traded and blossoms in 3 years fans will say we should have kept him. if we keep him and he becomes Corky Miller we should have dumped him. I’d trade Laird and run Bethancourt and Gattis next year

    On McCann I happen to believe he can be signed but That in itself means Bethancourt won’t come up, sitting on the bench wastes his talent and certainly he’d be traded maybe as a throw in to get someone to tale Uggla or BJ (Everyone sign Dream in your best Everly Brothers shower voice). McCann would stay for 5 @ 15 because he’s that way inclined and oddly if the season goes south Wren may feel the need to hide his BJ debacle behind a McCann signing.

    I don’t worry as much about the clubhouse leadership as many, I think Freeman has that well in hand. If you look around and say who’s been there long only Uggla and BMac and Uggs is a great guy but leaders do it and Uggs doesn’t right now.

  • fireboss

    So if he fell to us would Gattis get Lincecum? Gattis is 1st round pick equivalent and with Posey he could learn to catch and play 1st for them. Enquiring minds. . .

    • cheadrick

      Fred, that’s a trade I’d make in a heartbeat.

      • fireboss

        Yea but I suspect no one else thinks like that and he was probably claimed by the Cardinals or someone stupid like that. I noticed to day between sleepwalking through it that Rizzo is saying he planned the DeJesus thing sort of like this. Someone should send him the Randy Myers story

        • cheadrick

          Ahh the infamous Myers blunder. My how history may have changed if the Braves had gotten Randy that fateful waiver wire :)

          • Matt Talbert

            You would want Lincecum, seriously? I would rather chance on Cain even though his xFIP etc as I have been informed were inflated and he’s pitching to more what his outliers suggested originally.

          • cheadrick

            Yes, seriously. Some say he has regressed, tired arm, etc., who knows? Outside of his bad year in 2012, he never had an ERA above 3 but one time. I don’t buy the notion that he is regressing. I think it’s just an anomaly for him, as most pitchers have. New team, new guys surrounding may just be what the doctor ordered. Unless you know he is seriously regressing, injured, etc., who wouldn’t take a 2 time CYA winner who’s still young, and has a proven track record? His off years are a fairly small sample size, and as for SABR stats, FIP and xFIP both just tell us he’s pitched worse, which he has, but not necessarily how or why he has pitched worse. I would gamble on him without knowing that answer.

  • Matthew Jones

    I read on another site that there will be a large push for BMac in the AL this go around. One thing that I think is being discounted is that McCann is in the Chipper mold of players. I think that he could possibly take less money this time around to get another couple of years in as a Braves player (and be the continuing face of the Braves), and then pursue a big money deal in 3-4 years where he’d be mostly a DH.

    The question comes, though, will he hold up in his early 30s? And more than that, will he be able to continue to catch as much as we would expect him to? In the last few years, that answer has been no. Granted, some of it was him trying to be a good teammate and play through an injury, but it does beg the question of if he can stay healthy.

    By the way, I agree with fireboss on Gattis below. I love the White Bear, but he’s our backup starting next year. If they were to trade him, yes, it’d be like the Braves trading Prado again for me. But if they were to get the kind of return that we did for Prado, I’d be fine with it.

    • fireboss

      It’s been a well supported rumor that both the Yankees who are notoriously short of a catcher who can hit -, Rangers and Red Sox are all going to be in on Mac. David Ross being in Boston may influence him while the Yankees will offer a lot of money and the Rangers too have money to spend.

      When I was in Atlanta in 2012 I spoke with people who said “Mac has deep roots here, owns businesses etc.. I think it would be hard to turn down the extra $10M over 5 years otoh when you’re talking $15M a year what’s a couple million here or there? :)

      • Matthew Jones

        This is true, but I will say one other thing towards NY and Boston. If they offer only about $5m more per season, that’s going to get eaten up in taxes which makes the offers relatively competitive still. Granted, I don’t know if it’d make him stay here in Atlanta just because of that, but it’s something to consider. As for Texas, they might have an upper hand because there’s no income tax there. Ditto if the Rays were somehow able to scrape up enough money to make a run.

        Saw one other place (Peter Gammon’s personal blog) that he thought Mac would be a good fit in Philadelphia. That would be almost worse than Glavine going to the Mets. Talking about Glavine, I hope that this situation with McCann doesn’t turn into a situation like that did.

        • Matt Talbert

          Glavine leaving didn’t bother me.

  • Joseph Fain

    A couple of thoughts:

    I believe the defensive aspect of catching is absolutely critical. Particularly given that we have such a young pitching staff, the ability of the catcher to call games effectively and manage the pitchers during and between games is crucial. This is supported by the fact that so many teams are willing to accept poor offense from the position. For that reason, I do not believe Gattis should be the starter next year. I simply do not believe he offers enough additional offense to makeup for his poor defense. I think I would go with Bethancourt and keep Laird as his backup. Laird can help bring along the pitching staff (like he has with Teheran this year) AND help Christian adjust to the major leagues. Gattis should either be traded or sent to AAA to improve his defense to prepare for the backup catcher role in 2015 once Laird is gone.

    Obviously all of this assumes that McCann walks. The interesting thing that I have heard floated on McCann is to offer him a shorter contract so that he can potentially sign another large free agent deal (likely with an AL team to DH) prior to reaching his declining seriously declining. I think this makes sense for both the Braves and McCann (assuming he would accept it). I would consider offering him $60M for 3 years and see if he takes it. I would feel really uncomfortable with the Braves offering him a large contract that is much longer (even the $15M for 5 years suggested below). The Braves simply do not have a large enough payroll to have many big contract players that aren’t producing (and we already have several).

    • cheadrick

      Yeah I considered writing a touch about how McCann could stay, including an offer he could live with, and just the possibility that BMac might operate in the CJ mold and just not do what everyone expects. I wouldn’t put that past BMac, but then with Wren and Co, even then, you just don’t know. I didn’t touch on it, because the article was already longer than my Boxhead Lab’s slobbery tongue. Good points though.

      • Joseph Fain

        I think the other reason that this might appeal to McCann is that the Braves seem poised to have a 3-4 run of very good teams with most of the roster under control for a while. He might feel like staying for 3 years to see if they can win a championship.

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