Short Hops: Braves catchers review/preview
FOXSportsSouth.com’s team of Braves writers are taking a look back at 2014, position by position, and breaking down what we know heading into the Winter Meetings Dec. 7-11 in San Diego. Our series continues with catcher.
-4 — Atlanta’s minus-4 defensive runs saved by its backstops was 20th overall. Gerald Laird was the only player to finish with a positive figure with one DRS.
22 — Braves catchers tied for fourth in the majors last year with 22 home runs, all of which came via Evan Gattis
.987 — Christian Bethancourt had the highest fielding percentage of any Braves catcher over his 260 1/3 innings.
There’s no easy answer to what is one of the chief issues the Braves face this offseason, because as manager Fredi Gonzalez said, "In this day and age with the way offense is going now, it’s hard to (replace) 22 home runs." He can’t equal Gattis power (more on that later), but Bethancourt seemed to establish himself as Atlanta’s main catcher going forward, appearing in 18 of the final 25 games and Gonzlaez mentioned the primary backstop playing in 130-140 games. One option, should Bethancourt assume that role, would be to utilize Gattis as a backup and playing him the outfield to maximize what he can do at the plate. Gattis never played in left last year, though as a rookie he played 342 1/3 innings (more than he played at catcher), and while he was subpar defensively in the grass with minus-10 DRS, he was also inexperienced there. But there’s a logjam in the outfield with the brothers Upton (B.J. and Justin) and Jason Heyward, and if that group remains intact next season, how much can Gattis really expect to play in left? Of course, the Braves could trade Gattis, who isn’t arbitration eligible until after last season, and it’s expected he would be a valuable asset for an American League team, where he can be used as a designated hitter as well. But considering the drop off the Braves had in their home run production in ’14, ranking 11th in the National League, can they afford to get rid of one of their most prolific bats? Unless a change in personnel frees up Gattis to get 400-plus plate appearances in a platoon role, that’s a difficult decision newly appointed president of baseball operations John Hart may be forced to make.
He’s not Gattis and, frankly, he may never be the kind of hitter who can produce 20 home runs a year. But the flip side is that Bethancourt may not get credit for his abilities at the plate in following the acts of power hitters Gattis and Brian McCann before him. In 2013, his second in Double-A, Bethancourt went from two home runs to 12 and hit eight in 265 plate appearances at Triple-A before his arrival in Atlanta. He has yet to hit a major league home run, hitting .248/.274/.274 in 117 PAs in ’14 and all three of his extra-base hits were doubles, but there were improvements. Bethancourt had a .240/.283/.260 slash line in 13 games from June 28-July 1, then after his September call-up he was at .254/.266/.286 in his last 18 games. It’s not a major jump, but it does show a step up with consistent playing time. "He’s making adjustments offensively, just like everybody else," Gonzalez told ‘Baseball America.’ Bethancourt’s defensive prowess draws comparisons to the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, and Molina himself didn’t enter the majors as a finished product offensively, hitting a collective .248 over his first four seasons before blossoming into a .300 hitter. Bethancourt’s track record shows the offense is there, it may just take time, as for the rest? "The things he can do behind the plate, he’s ready to make an impact at this level," Gonzalez said.
The past two seasons the Braves have had three catchers on their roster, going that route in 2012 with McCann, Gattis and Laird (due to McCann’s injury and the emergence of Gattis’ bat), and last season with Gattis, Laird, utility man Ryan Doumit, and later Bethancourt (technically giving them four catchers). But should Bethancourt and Gattis both be on the roster, and should Gattis remain in the mix behind the plate, will they keep Laird and have a valuable bench spot used up by another catcher? His playing time dwindled after Bethancourt’s call up on Sept. 3, appearing in just five games in the final month and 19 in all after the All-Star break. But if Gattis is splitting time in left field and catcher, the 34-year-old Laird, who just finished a two-year, $3 million contract, can serve as a mentor to Bethancourt in what would be his first full season in the majors. That seems more likely than bringing back Doumit, a free agent, who hit .197/.235/.318 in 166 plate appearances and had the highest strikeout rate of his career at 29.5 percent. Power wasn’t much of an option off the bench last year, and with neither Laird or Doumit supplying it consistently, it would be surprising to see one of them sticking around as a third catcher as this roster is presently constituted.