Burning questions facing Braves catchers

The Braves have enjoyed a fortuitous run with primarily Javy López or Brian McCann on the active roster every season since 1994 — with the notable exception of 2004, when Johnny Estrada had a career year with Atlanta (nine home runs, 76 RBI, .314 batting average).

Few MLB clubs can match Atlanta’s 20-season stability at catcher. And that’ll be the case … for at least one more year.

With the impending free agency of McCann, his offseason shoulder surgery and the systematic development of three intriguing catching prospects (Christian Bethancourt, Evan Gattis, Josh Elander), the Braves’ 2013 campaign could represent the proverbial calm before the storm, backstop-wise.

“Calm” being a relative term, since McCann should again play a major role on a club with legitimate championship aspirations.

Here are some burning questions involving the state of Braves catchers in 2013:

1. How will McCann fare in his ‘contract’ year?

If McCann wasn’t earmarked for free agency in 2014, his recovery time from surgery for a torn labrum probably wouldn’t be a big issue. But in this “walk” year, everything gets magnified for a franchise linchpin who averaged 22 homers, 83 RBI and 57 runs from 2006-12.

Such as, Will he be ready to go by mid-April (manager Fredi Gonzalez’s estimate in December)?

For May-September, can McCann average at least 22 games per month?

Will he recapture the hitting prowess/plate discipline that generated consistently strong annual marks in on-base percentage (.340 or above) and slugging (.450 or above)?

McCann’s 2012 season might have wrought career lows in hits, runs, homers, doubles, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS, but there are two positives to celebrate from it:

Last July, McCann had a pair of stellar spurts just two weeks apart.

From July 5-8, spanning 16 at-bats, he notched four runs, seven hits, 11 RBI and four straight outings with a home run. And from July 18-21, McCann had a three-game flurry of three runs, four hits, five RBI and back-to-back-to-back outings of one homer each.

The downside to both streaks: McCann tallied only one run in each of the seven games in which he hit a homer. Given the depth and potency of Atlanta’s regular lineup, that’s a tough reality to accept.

2. Could Gerald Laird handle a sizable workload this year, in the event of a McCann injury setback?

There are no surprises with Laird at this point in his career. He possesses solid defensive skills, a streaky bat and quicker feet than most catchers in their mid-30s.

On the flip side, his diminished power (three homers over the last two seasons) cannot be rationalized as the result of playing in roomy ballparks for both 2011 (new Busch Stadium in St. Louis) and 2012 (Detroit’s Comerica Park).

With the Tigers last year, Laird produced rock-solid numbers in batting average (.282) and on-base percentage (.337). Going further, he posted 13 outings of multiple hits and didn’t go more than three games (of two or more at-bats) without registering one hit.

In other words, Laird likely won’t carry the Braves on his back for one, two or three weeks … but he wouldn’t be a weak link during that span, either.


3. Will Christian Bethancourt or Evan Gattis have roles with the parent club before September?

The slick-fielding Bethancourt has made improvements in recent years, cutting down the high strikeout rates from 2010 and 2011 and boosting his rep as a decent threat for double-digit steals.

But the 21-year-old catcher still needs to develop more consistency with plate discipline and power numbers, while garnering more experience calling games from behind the plate (the same for any young backstop). These progressions will likely occur at Double-A Mississippi or Triple-A Gwinnett from April to August.

Baseball America currently has Bethancourt tabbed as Atlanta’s No. 3 overall prospect and loftiest position player (ahead of Gattis), but let’s keep things in perspective here: Bethancourt might be the franchise’s most diverse backstop since McCann…but the duo’s early-career numbers run noticeably disparate.

Before his big-league promotion in 2005, McCann posted consecutive seasons of 12-plus homers, 40 runs, 65-plus RBI and slugging rates over .460. To date, Bethancourt hasn’t launched more than five home runs in any of his five minor league campaigns (2008-12).

Which brings us to Gattis.

By most accounts, the Braves apparently favor the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder as a long-term outfield prospect (a status he occupied in winter ball) — and not the National League version of Orioles catcher Matt Wieters (size-wise).

If so, it’s immaterial for this particular discussion that Gattis crushed 40 total homers for 2011/12 … or that his three-year hitting line of .308/.374/.546 garnered attention in the realm of 25-and-under prospects.

But it’s certainly relevant for a balanced club, like the Braves, that could always use another sweet-swinging, power-hitting outfielder in his mid-20s.