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…

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB
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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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.

Split G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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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