Braves catcher in ’15: Bethancourt, Gattis, or both?

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Veteran Gerald Laird (left) believes it's only a matter of time before rookie Christian Bethancourt is good hitter, comparing him to a young Yadier Molina.

The Braves have a slugger of a catcher, Evan Gattis, whose unusual background, splendid nickname – El Oso Blanco — and circuitous path to the majors made him a budding folk hero to many fans before he played his first major league game. A catcher whose 43 homers in 723 at-bats over his first two seasons further strengthened the Paul Bunyan-esque legend.

And the Braves have a highly regarded, strong-armed rookie catcher, Christian Bethancourt, who only turned 23 last month but has already spent most of seven seasons in the minor leagues and showed promise in 30 starts in the majors. A catcher who needs to play on a regular basis to continue his development, and might be near the point of diminishing return playing in the minors.

No gloves required: Evan Gattis has 43 homers in 723 at-bats in his first two major league seasons.

No gloves required: Evan Gattis has 43 homers in 723 at-bats in his first two major league seasons.

So what will the Braves do about the catching position before next season? What should they do?

In Gattis, the Braves have a power hitter who’ll likely make below $600,000 in 2015, won’t be eligible for arbitration until after the 2015 season and be under contractual control for four more seasons through 2018. That makes him attractive to both the Braves and many other teams, particularly American League teams who could use him as a designated hitter.

In Bethancourt, the Braves have a player who’ll make barely $500,000 in 2015 and be under contractual control for six seasons.

There were at least a few options on the table as Braves officials began their offseason discussions. Nothing will be decided until after they have a permanent general manager in place and probably not until they see what the trade market looks like and what certain current Braves including Gattis might bring in return.

But here are options they will likely consider:

• Keep the 250-pound Gattis at catcher and bring back Gerald Laird or another veteran backup to make 40-50 starts in an effort to keep Gattis healthy and fresh. That was the plan last season and it worked until it didn’t, when Gattis, 28, came down with a balky back and a couple of unrelated illnesses that further diminished an already punchless lineup.

• Trade one or more from their current outfield of the Uptons and Jason Heyward and move Gattis to left field, where he actually made more starts than he did at catcher as a rookie in 2013. Corner outfielders Justin Upton and Heyward are eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, and the Braves probably can’t afford to keep more than one in a long-term extension. The Braves know they will probably have to eat a substantial amount of the remaining three years and approximate $46 million on center field B.J. Upton’s contract to trade him, but might be willing to do that, or eat part of it as part of a trade for another team’s bad contract.

Gattis’ defense in left field was below average in 2013, but Gattis had little experience in the outfield, and some in the Braves organization believe he might become a serviceable defensive outfielder with a full spring training of work at the position. (Besides, it’s not as if they’ve getting Gold Glove defense from Justin Upton in left the past two seasons.)

• Trade Gattis, make Bethancourt the regular catcher and sign a seasoned veteran backup, the kind who can help the rookie behind the scenes and be satisfied playing behind him and getting about 30 starts.

• Work out some some form of platoon arrangement with Gattis getting ample time in left field and behind the plate, which would allow Bethancourt to start at least half of the games at catcher with Laird or another veteran as a third catcher who’d also get plenty of work. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said the day after the season ended this was a possibility.

“We’ve talked about it internally a lot,” he said “and I tell you what, in this day and age with the way offense is going now, it’s hard to (replace) 22 home runs.”

He was referring to Gattis’ home-run total in 2014. Gattis hit 22 over the fences in 369 at-bats, the second-highest homer total on the team behind Justin Upton, who hit 29 in 566 ABs.

“I think we’ve got time to keep talking through those options,” Gonzalez said, “but, I mean, 22 homers. He had something like 41 homers in his first 600-some at-bats, (basically) a full season. I don’t know if you could keep him (going) for anywhere close to 600 at-bats, but we could try, someplace.”

Asked if that meant Gattis could be used both at catcher and left field, Gonzalez said, “That’s an option…. Why not? When you’ve got a bat like his, you’ve got to try to figure out — I mean, those guys aren’t walking around (in abundance).”

Braves catchers tied for fourth in the majors in home runs with 22, and Gattis had all of them. Laird and Bethancourt had no homers in 258 at-bats as catchers, and Gattis’ .515 slugging percentage as a catcher was only 28 points below the combined slugging percentages of Laird (.269) and Bethancourt (.274) as catchers.

Despite missing about five weeks of the season with a bulging disc, a viral illness, strep throat and a kidney stone, Gattis tied San Francisco’s Buster Posey and Seattle’s Mike Zunino for third among major league catchers with 22 homers, one behind Brian McCann, the longtime former Braves perennial All-Star who had 23 in 495 at-bats in his first season with the Yankees.

For some perspective on Gattis’ power and beginning-of-career production: He has 43 homers, 117 RBIs and a .487 slugging percentage 723 at-bats (213 games) in his first two seasons. Orioles outfielder Nelson Cruz, who led the majors with 40 homers in 2014, had 34 homers, 114 RBIs and a .463 slugging percentage after his first 721 at-bats (221 games).

Cruz was 26 at that point, midway through his third season and first full season. Gattis turned 28 in August.

Gattis was playing is best ball before the back injury in late June, and was never the same for any extended period after returning. He hit .300 with 15 homers, 37 RBIs and a .356 OBP and .580 slugging percentage in 200 ABs in his last 56 games before going on the DL, and hit .221 with six homers, 13 RBIs, a .278 OBP and .393 slugging percentage in 45 games the rest of the season.

Veteran Gerald Laird (left) believes it's only a matter of time before rookie Christian Bethancourt is good hitter, comparing him to a young Yadier Molina.

Veteran Gerald Laird (left) believes it’s only a matter of time before rookie Christian Bethancourt is good hitter, comparing him to a young Yadier Molina.

Bethancourt was called from Triple-A to catch during Gattis’ three-week DL stint, and again handled the primary catching duties when Gattis missed most of the final three weeks of the season due to illness. Bethancourt had several key hits for the Braves including a few two-out, opposite-field hits, but he finished with a .248 average (28-for-117), three doubles, nine RBIs and a slugging percentage (.274) that was the same as his on-base percentage.

The rookie had 26 strikeouts and just three walks in 31 games for the Braves, after totaling 61 strikeouts with 13 walks at Triple-A Gwinnett, where Bethancourt hit .283 with 26 extra-base hits (eight homers), 48 RBIs and a .716 OPS in 91 games.

His strong arm and reputation helped him virtually shutt down many opponents’ running games in the minors, but there continue to be questions about whether Bethancourt’s offense will ever begin to catch up with his defense. He has a .270 average, .300 OBP and .679 OPS in nearly 2,200 plate appearances  in the minors, with 34 homers including a career-high 12 in his second Double-A season in 2013.

Despite his undeniable defensive abilities, there has also been criticism of Bethancourt’s tendency to rely too much on his natural skills, like when he tries to backhand balls that he should slide over and get in front of.

There have long been plenty of critics of Gattis’ defense, but it should be noted that he had five passed balls  in 89 starts in 2014, while Laird had seven in 41 starts and Bethancourt had six in 30 starts. Bethancourt also had three errors including two in his last seven games in September.

“That’s not something I want to be doing, giving up passed balls, giving away runs,” Bethancourt said during the final weekend of the season. “I guess that’s baseball – I mean, I’m human. I’m not perfect. I just try to do my job, which is catch the ball and call good games. And whatever is not working, you’ve got to find a way to make it work….

“They’re throwing the ball, I’ve got to catch the ball. If I’m not doing it, obviously I’m doing something wrong. I’m losing my concentration or I’m getting too comfortable. Either one of those.”

Gonzalez said he thought the late-season mistakes might have resulted from fatigue, since Bethancourt had never played on a regular basis through September. Minor league seasons end sooner, and Bethancourt spent his first major league September call-up on the bench in 2013.

Bethancourt, whose increased maturity and accountability has impressed Braves teammates and coaches in the past year, dismissed fatigue as a possible factor in his late-season defensive issues.

“I’m probably try to backhand it in July, too, and it’s probably going to go by (then as well),” he said. “I mean, I should block that ball; it’s my job to block that ball. Just because it’s September – that doesn’t mean anything to me.”

Laird said Bethancourt is still learning and just needs more playing time. He has no doubts about the rookie’s abilities. Laird said he talked with Bethancourt for a while during the Braves’ flight to Philadelphia for the last series of the season.

“He’s learning new pitchers and the game’s a little faster up here,” Laird said. “All the talent’s there. We’ve seen it. It’s just a matter of getting confidence, and proving to himself that he can play up here every day.”

“I told him he’s one of the most talented guys I’ve seen, and just told him to really focus on his defense. The offense is there, it’s going to come as you get older. I watched Yadi (St. Louis All-Star Yadier Molina), the first three or four years of his career he wasn’t the best hitter in the world, and then the last three or four years he’s become a really good hitter.

“The offense is going to come (for Bethancourt). Right now he just needs to focus on game-calling and his defense.”

• Let’s close with this song off Sturgill Simpson‘s excellent first album from 2013, High Top Mountain. He’s one of the finest practitioners of real country music in the past couple of decades.

“HERO” by Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson

Decided to write a song for my hero
Considering he’s done so much for me
He’s the one that pulled me up when I fell down so low
He’s the one that led me through the darkness when I could not see
Never met a man more gentle or any humbler
Never once heard him raise his voice or saw him mad
But I watched him break his back on coal and lumber
To give her everything she never had

Cause when it all comes down to zero
There’s nothing more this life could ever give
And I know I’ll never find another hero
Not another one like him

Born on a summer day in some dark holler
Way back in the hills of Perry County
Well he grew up poor and he never saw a dollar
But a dollar ain’t no good in a coal camp anyway

Cause when it all comes down to zero
There’s nothing more this life could ever give
And I know I’ll never find another hero
Not another one like him

And if I’m half the man he is when I die
I don’t know if I could ask for too much more
He taught me you only need one hand
to count your real friends in this life
But if you find true love you better take both arms
and hold on til your sore


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