As it turns out, agreeing to join the Atlanta Braves during the off-season prior to 2013 may not have been the best career move for Gerald Laird. At the time (November 16th, 2012), it certainly may have seemed like the right call. Brian McCann had just had surgery and would certainly have been on the shelf for a fairly significant period of time and David Ross had been wooed to the Red Sox for roughly double the maximum Frank Wren was willing to part with, plus
plenty of fried chicken, beer, and a World Series ring. So, Laird, the consensus choice as ‘next best available free agent back-up catcher’ signed a two-year deal with Atlanta for $3 million.
Looking back at that now, Laird might have chosen another home.
In 2013, he only started 33 games as catcher, 294 innings, fewest of his career since 2005 (excepting his backup role behind Yadier Molina for the Cardinals in 2011). In fact, you could argue that there’s still quite a bit of mileage left in the legs of this now 34-year-old, as he’s had just 2 “full” seasons catching (135 games/123 starts in 2009 for the Tigers; 119/114 in 2007 for the Rangers). In all, he’s been a battery mate for in 705 games with 637 starts… over 11 seasons… so reports are that he was hopeful to have more playing time with Atlanta – even as Brian McCann’s sidekick.
Of course, then the Evan Gattis phenomenon occurred. And then when McCann returned, the Braves had three catchers on the active roster since they really needed Gattis’ bat and yet still really needed defensive insurance just in case. After all, Fredi Gonzalez has this aversion to using his backup backstop in any game situation if it means losing the primary guy. The good news for Laird is that with 3 catchers, that policy was less in play in 2013. The bad news is that it will be back in 2014.
Still the Backup
What’s truly interesting is that Gerald Laird actually hits fairly well. Not in terms of homers, but certainly for average. He’s working on a career .246 with .307 OBP, though in many years – including 2013, he’s done much better: .281 in 141 plate appearances with a robust .367 OBP.
But that’s not going to matter, because Evan Gattis is the number one catcher now. And like it or not, Laird’s contract keeps him in Atlanta through the 2014 season. At least he’s no longer third on the depth chart. That honor will go to newly-acquired Ryan Doumit. But that will likely also reduce Laird’s appearances, given that Doumit is yet another bat-first/defense second (or maybe even third, in his case) and he’s a switch-hitter, to boot.
Gattis will nonetheless still need days off, here and there. Fredi Gonzalez, being a creature of habit, will thus likely use Laird with some consistency – possibly even as the ‘Personal Catcher’ for one of the primary starting five. So I would anticipate that he gets a start at least once a week, plus several spot starts whenever Gattis pulls something manly.
When you add all of that up, you can probably figure on these kinds of offensive stats for Laird in 2014:
- 40-45 starts
- 180 plate appearances
- Slash line of .265 to .270/.320/.360/.680 … maybe OPSing up to .700 or .710 (.739 in 2013)
- 2 homers, 15-20 RBI or so
Defensively… he could certainly be better. One thing, though: he’s pretty good throwing out would-be base-stealers. Over his career, he’s stopped 35% of them, including 9 of 25 in 2013. That’s actually pretty impressive. His catching, though…
- higher than average wild pitches allowed (suggests weak blocking)
- higher than average passed balls allowed
- As we found when looking at Ryan Doumit, he’s also among the worst in baseball in terms of pitch framing
The framing will tend to cost his pitcher a strike here and there (and ultimately a run every 10 games or so), but the protection of the baseball is certainly or more importance. I think that if Laird ends up getting more playing time than expected, that we’ll be able to see the real differences between he and Brian McCann.
But there’s yet another possibility looming
That possibility is named Christian Bethancourt. And this one is entirely dependent on how well Bethancourt can adjust to AAA pitching… on the offensive side of the equation. We’ll talk about him in another projection later, but that’s exactly been the rub for this perennial prospect: when will he hit? He’s already the best defender this side of Yadi Molina. In 2013, he busted out a bit, but that was in a repeat visit to AA ball in the Southern League. So what are the chances of Bethancourt jumping up and supplanting Laird – and Doumit – in the catching order?
By this reckoning… the odds are not that good – at least not anytime soon. The Braves are indeed conservative with their handling of catchers, so it is likely that they’d rather see a full year of AAA offensive production from Christian before bringing him to the majors. Even if that were to start materializing, the ‘veteran presence’ thing that Laird brings is hard to ignore – especially with a semi-rookie like Gattis handling so much of the workload.
That said, Bethancourt will still be one significant injury away from the majors: he is now on the 40-man roster, so he’s the obvious choice to promote in the event of an immediate need. Additionally, if Gattis’ defense were to become a serious liability, then Bethancourt could be called up to fill that need as well: neither Laird nor Doumit will be confused with any of the Molina brothers… or Brian McCann, for that matter. We have seen that scenario play out before (exit Tyler Pastornicky; enter Andrelton Simmons). But absent anything unusual, I anticipate that the earliest we see Bethancourt in Atlanta again is September, with a ‘real’ call-up in 2015 after Laird’s contract expires.
But for now…
…Gerald Laird will have to be content to watch, teach, and occasionally catch for Mike Minor or Julio Teheran (guessing on those names). He will be the comfort spot for Fredi — that “Cialis” guy that is supposed to be ready any time the moment is right. That doesn’t get him a lot of innings, but in terms of backup catchers, the Braves could certainly have done worse. A lot worse. On balance, we’re pretty lucky to have him.