LAKE BUENVA VISTA, Fla. – “Got your new sticks, huh?” Matt Pagnozzi asked as Evan Gattis held up his Louisville Slugger, the Braves prospect’s name branded into the unfinished ash bat.
The man dubbed “El Oso Blanco” rubbed his hands over the bat before taking his place in the batting cage, pulling his 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame into a crouch you’d expect to see from a much smaller player.
A crowd had gathered around the cage as Gattis, who doesn’t wear batting gloves, dug in. With the wind blowing in, the righty sent a shot screaming to left field and another to center, ball after ball exploding off his bat and beyond the fence on the Atlanta Braves complex at Walt Disney World Resort.
“His bat is going to carry him as far as this camp (is concerned),” manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez is blunt when discussing his expectations for Gattis, who thanks to those prolific home runs, has been one of the most-talked about players in the early goings of spring training.
“My impression of him is he’s a guy that should thinking about how to make this club,” Gonzalez said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t have very many years of minor-league experience, but he’s also 26 years old. He’s not a kid and you can push him a little bit.”
Therein lies one of the biggest issues with Gattis. At an age when most prospects have at least cut their teeth in the big leagues, Gattis has yet to play a game above the Double-A level, but he’s not concerned.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said while sitting in his locker in the Braves clubhouse. “It’s the only baseball career I’ve had.”
And it’s one that has had a winding path to get him on the cusp of making Atlanta’s 25-man roster.
In 2004, Gattis signed his letter of intent to attend Texas A&M, but he would never play a game for the Aggies. Terrified of failing, he dealt with depression and self-medicated with alcohol and marijuana until his mother checked him into drug rehab.
He enrolled at Seminole State College, a junior college in Oklahoma, but was redshirted after injuring his knee and left the school midway through the next year.
He wandered, living with his sister in Boulder, Colo., where he worked at an pizza parlor, as a ski-lift operator, then moved back to Texas and took a job as a janitor. It’s a picture of Gattis’ nametag when he worked for Jan-Pro Cleaning Systems in Dallas that serves as his Twitter avatar, a mop of hair in direct contrast with the bald head he now sports.
“I had a little bit (more hair then),” he joked. “(I) was like a nappy Jesus or something.”
After a three-year layoff, Gattis returned to baseball, playing at the University of Texas-Permian Bain, where he hit .403 with 11 home runs in his only season before being drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round in 2010.
He hit 40 home runs the past two seasons and posted averages of .322 in Class-A Rome (’11) and .305 split across the Gulf Coast League affiliate, Single-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi.
“(Last year), we would sit down and look at what Gattis did the night before, ‘Hey, he hit another home run,’” Gonzalez said.
Gattis continued his tear in the Winter League in Venezuela, where he led all batters with 16 home runs, including six over his last eight games, and a .595 average while playing for Aguilas.
And as if a page was torn from the script of HBO’s “Eastbound & Down” — a story of another baseball player, Kenny Powers, who received the nicknamed “La Flama Blanca” while traveling his own unusual path back to a shot at the big leagues – the locals dubbed Gattis “El Oso Blanco” (The White Bear).
“That was so funny,” Gattis said. “I don’t even know what to say about it. It was funny and it caught on, I guess.”
Gattis’ exploits earned him a non-roster invitation to spring training, his first trip to a big-league camp, and he’s wasted little time making his mark.
In his spring debut Saturday against the New York Yankees, Gattis hit a two-run home run and added a double in four plate appearances from the designated hitter spot.
“He’s an impressive young man,” Gonzalez said. “He’s got those numbers of big power with a lot of base on balls and very little strikeouts. That’s impressive.”
There’s little debate regarding what Gattis can do with his bat, but where does he fit into the Braves plans?
A catcher by trade, he’s played 114 games at that position in the minors. The Braves signed Gerald Laird this offseason to fill in for Brian McCann, who is likely to miss at least the first two weeks of the season. Gattis could be used as a backup catcher while McCann is out, though he’ll have competition from Christian Bethancourt, the Braves’ third-ranked prospect overall by Baseball America and the top position player.
Gonzalez said Gattis could also be used as a pinch hitter in the outfield or at first base, but there seems to be no plans to try and convert him to third base, the position where the Braves face the biggest questions heading into the season.
Gattis though, seems unconcerned about his place on the roster, only that he has one.
“I’m not really worried about that,” he said. “The goal always kind of stays the same. You go through your routines and you do basically the same thing every day and your habits kind of take you where they take you.
“It’s just trying to stay on the right track and getting better at everything you do, whatever that might be and that stays the same whether you’re at camp or wherever.”