Burning questions for Braves at catcher in 2014
In the summer of 2005, Brian McCann supplanted Johnny Estrada as the Braves starting catcher just one month into his career, and would go on to become one of the most dependable backstops in the majors.
Over nine seasons, McCann appeared in 83.7 percent of the 1,307 games in which he was on the active roster, hitting at least 20 home run in six straight years and he was a seven-time All-Star selection. He was also the Braves’ emotional leader in the clubhouse and on the field, — as we saw in fiery fashion in run-ins with the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez and Brewers’ Carlos Gomez.
But McCann is now in pinstripes, inking a five-year, $85 million contract with the Yankees as a free agent in December, a deal that made him the game’s highest-paid catcher.
It’s an exit that, while everyone saw coming, leaves the Braves facing plenty of questions at the position heading into spring training. Here are three of the biggest:
The backstory and the prodigious home runs captivated, spawning the El Oso Blanco phenomenon as Evan Gattis hit .243/.291./.480 with 21 HRs and 65 RBIs in 105 games in playing catcher, left field and first base as a 27-year-old-rookie.
The highs were high (hitting his first career home run off Roy Halladay; delivering the season’s longest shot at 486 feet) and there were expected lows for a rookie (he was demoted in late August after hitting .208 over 107 plate appearances).
Now, Gattis has to find consistency wile taking over for a pillar of the franchise. But offensively, there may not be much of a drop-off with the White Bear.
Hardball Times’ Oliver projections — these forecasts, unlike those by other services, adjusts to ballparks and leagues — has Gattis at .256/.308/.490 with 31 homers and 96 RBI.
If he were to produce are that rate, Gattis would be in line with McCann average-wise (he hit .256 last season and hasn’t been a .300 hitter since ’08) and would be an uptick in the power department, with McCann hitting no more than 24 as a Brave.
The difference, at least in what we saw of Gattis last season, is in the defense.
Gattis was more productive, from a percentage standpoint in picking off runners — he had eight to McCann’s 15 but did so a 33 percent clip, with McCann at 24.
That figure is intriguing given that the league caught stealing percentage was 28 percent last season, though in his career McCann had a higher rate than the league just once and just barely (30 percent in ’10 when the league was at 29). That’s never been his strongpoint.
McCann is most valuable at the plate in RPP (Passed Pitch Runs), which shows a catcher’s ability to block pitches and mitigate damage on loose balls. It’s there where McCann has never been below 2.1 — it’s graded on a baseline average of zero — in his career, with that number coming in ’13. But over the last three season’s he’s averaged a 3.2.
Gattis was at a below average minus-0.9 in that department as he allowed 17 wild pitches (equal to McCann, who caught 456 2/3 more innings), the most by an backstop with at least 349 2/3 innings.
Certainly that number isn’t all on Gattis, but it’s still an area of concern. Offensively, Gattis should be able to fill the void, but it’s how much he’s able to replicate McCann’s value on defense that will be pivotal.
The Braves carried three catchers last season with McCann, Gattis and Gerald Laird, pushing that number to four with the September call-up of Christian Bethancourt.
They look to be following a similar plan in trading for Ryan Doumit, who was acquired from the Twins for pitching prospect Sean Gilmartin.
Laird — who is the final year of his two-year contract — should serve as Gattis’ primary backup and while he’s a solid hitter (.281/.367./.372 in ’13), the 11-year veteran’s key contribution may be in helping along young pitchers.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez tried to avoid pairing up Gattis with any of the young starters. Laird caught then-rookie Julio Teheran in 12 of his 30 starts, with and McCann drawing 17 and it was similar with Alex Wood (six of his starts were with McCann and four with Laird) and David Hale (both games had McCann behind the plate). Meanwhile, Gattis caught Teheran once and Wood.
Considering the relative youth of Teheran (34 career starts), likely rotation member Wood (11 starts) and wild-card Hale (two), Laird may their personal catchers this season while also being used to give Gattis a day off.
Doumit’s attractiveness lies with his versatility, as the 32-year-old has 502 starts at catcher, 89 in right field, 32 at first base and 16 in left field (or as general manager Frank Wren put it "he was really almost two players in one"). He’s not a strong defensive presence behind the plate, averaging a minus-0.8 RPP the past six seasons.
With the Braves declining the option on Reed Johnson, Doumit can provide a bat off the bench, hitting .262 (28 for 107) as a pinch hitter. He’s also at his best against righties (.270/.330/.454)
At the minimum, he’s a super sub, but he adds depth and inexpensive ($3.5 million) insurance should something happen to Gattis or Laird.
Long touted as the Braves catcher of the future, Christian Bethancourt (the franchise’s second-ranked prospect per Baseball America) appears headed for another season of seasoning.
The 22-year-old hit .277/.305/.436 last year in Double-A Mississippi with 21 HRs and 45 RBIs (both career highs).
Those numbers are key given it is Bethancourt’s offense, not a defense which is often compared to Yadier Molina, that’s been his biggest deficiency.
Without a rash of injuries to the position it’s likely Bethancourt will spend the year with Triple-A Gwinnett, then earning a trip back to Atlanta as a September call-up.
But chances are it’s the last offseason that we’ll be left wondering when he’ll finally make the big-league roster.
Neither Laird or Doumit are under contract for next season, creating the possibility for an intriguing battle between Gattis and Bethancourt that could wage throughout the ’15 season.