Braves catchers face challenge in 2013

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Catcher Brian McCann has been the man calling the signs for the Atlanta Braves over the past eight seasons, but 2013 could mark the end of his tenure with the team.

Since 2005, the Atlanta Braves have enjoyed a brand of stability behind the plate that very few teams in baseball can boast. However, a shoulder injury will sideline McCann in the early going this season. That leaves the Braves in a somewhat unfamiliar place.

While Atlanta did exercise its team option on McCann over the winter, and remain in high hopes that he will return to action before April is out, there is some degree of uncertainty as to what to expect from the catcher’s position this season.

Capable backup David Ross departed via free agency, leaving Atlanta to search for viable reinforcements. Veteran Gerald Laird was signed to fit that bill, but that is not all the Braves have in camp this year. Top prospects and non-roster invitees will all be trying to make their mark during spring training as well.

With free agency looming and McCann at a pivotal juncture in his career, the future could be here sooner than later for Atlanta.

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Brian McCann has an irrepressible smile and passion for the game. That has been evident since he burst onto the scene as a fresh-faced 21-year-old rookie in 2005.

Since then, McCann has earned the respect of the Atlanta pitching staff and his teammates. He has also built a reputation as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball.

The average McCann season from 2006-2011 was .287/.359/.491 with 22 homers and 86 RBI in 137 games. Those numbers earned him six All-Star appearances and five Silver Slugger awards.

Then 2012 happened. It was a career-worst campaign that ended in a.230/.300/.399 slash line. He did connect for 20 home runs and drive home 67 runs in 121 games, but this was not the McCann of years past. There were not many if any encouraging ways to look at his splits.

The early struggles may well have been a slump that was bound to happen sooner or later, but eventually it became clear that McCann’s injured right shoulder was contributing to his substandard performance. It was affecting the slugger’s swing more so than his throwing.

Rather than end his season prematurely, McCann opted to have a pair of injections in hopes of alleviating the pain and playing through the injury.

Those cortisone shots may have kept McCann on the field, but his swing was clearly affected. Even this spring, McCann told Gabe Lacques of USA TODAY that playing through the pain is a decision he stands by.

“In the moment last year, I wanted to keep going, I wanted to be a part of that team that was having such a good season. I grinded through it. I wasn’t playing at my best. I knew I wasn’t at my best. It’s a decision I made.”

McCann batted just .202 with four extra-base hits and 11 RBI in the final two months of the season, and found himself benched in favor of Ross in Atlanta’s Wild Card game against St. Louis.

Despite coming off the worst season in his eight-year career, the Braves decided to exercise his $12 million team option for 2013. They have seen McCann at his best and believe he can get back there once fully healed.

The October surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder has McCann targeting a mid-April return to game action if his rehab goes according to schedule. The procedure has kept McCann out of Grapefruit League action thus far.

It has not been uncommon for McCann to battle through aches and pains over the years. He has proven to be quite durable, catching an average of 125 games in his six full seasons prior to 2012.

The word leadership has been a hot topic around spring training for Atlanta. It is a period of transition, but not the kind that involves rebuilding. The Braves have simply reloaded.

There is no one player in the Atlanta locker room who is more qualified to lead than McCann. He saw the Braves’ success as a rookie, then the struggles that followed. He watched his club be both a buyer and a seller at different stages before returning to the playoffs in 2010.

McCann is now 29 years old. He is truly a homegrown talent, an Georgia native who grew up in suburban Atlanta and was developed in the Braves’ farm system. McCann studied under the legendary Bobby Cox and played alongside Atlanta sports icon Chipper Jones for eight campaigns.

He has always seemed wise beyond his years, and has learned from the best the Braves had to offer.

As ESPN‘s Jerry Crasnick wrote just prior to spring training, Jones eyed McCann as his successor to lead the team after his retirement. That is, if McCann remains in Atlanta after 2013.

“I’d like to say it’s Brian McCann. He’s a great kid. He’s a great player, and he’s the kind of guy you want to build a ball club around. It would be sad to see him go somewhere else. Unfortunately, the business and economics of baseball may not allow it to happen.”

The winter was filled with a flurry of activity. Jones retired. B.J. Upton signed as a free agent, and Justin Upton was later acquired in a trade that sent Martin Prado to Arizona.

Once, left-hand heavy, Atlanta lineup is now much more balanced. With McCann back and in top form, the Braves batting order would get that much better.

Photo Credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images

Gerald Laird was exactly what Atlanta was looking for after losing trusty backup catcher David Ross to the Boston Red Sox over the winter.

Laird, 33,came in handy for the American League champion Detroit Tigers last year, capably filling in for the injured Alex Avila midway through the season. He will be asked to fill the void of another All-Star catcher to open 2013, as Brian McCann makes his way back from off-season shoulder surgery.

Perhaps Laird can also serve as a good luck charm of sorts for the Braves. After all, he has played in the last two World Series. First for the champion Cardinals in 2011, and then for the Tigers last season. Atlanta would have no problem if that trend continued.

Laird enjoyed a solid season for the Tigers, batting .282 in 63 games, his highest mark since 2008. Much to the Braves liking, Laird turned in a .293/.350/.390 line in his 51 starts in place of Avila last year.

While he may not provide as much power as Ross, he certainly fits the mold of veteran right-handed hitting option to spell McCann. Laird is also capable of handing the pitching staff for longer stretches of time if injury should strike.

This will actually make the third consecutive year that Laird has served as the backup to an All-Star catcher. He split from Detroit for a year in 2011 to play behind Yadier Molina in St. Louis.

Laird told Mark Bowman of that is perfectly comfortable filling the reserve role.

“I know I’m a backup, but I think the asset I bring is that I can play every day, too, like last year when Alex [Avila] went down. I can play as a starter for a while and be productive. I know my role now, and that’s just to play when the guys need a day off. I just want to make sure I’m prepared when the guys get a day off to give the team a chance to win. I take pride in that.”

Atlanta will depend on Laird to be the starting catcher as the season opens, while using Grapefruit League games to determine who his backup will be.

Photo Credit: J. Meric/Getty Images

Photo Credit: J. Meric/Getty Images

Evan Gattis almost passed on baseball altogether. The Braves are certainly glad he reconsidered.

Last spring, David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed Gattis’ odyssey.

Gattis, 26, may have gotten a late start but he has certainly done his best to make up for lost time. Since being taken by Atlanta in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft out of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, all he has done is post gaudy offensive totals.

Listed at six-foot-four, 230 pounds, Gattis is not short on power, yet has also shown an ability to hit for average thus far in his career as well. Gattis played primarily split much of 2012 season between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi, and put together a combined .305/.389/.607 slash line.

After a white-hot start at Lynchburg, Gattis quickly jumped to Mississippi, where he suffered a wrist injury that derailed his season for nearly two months. While his average came back down to earth in Double-A, Gattis belted 18 home runs among his 42 extra-base hits in just 272 at-bats overall in 2012.

Gattis has played exactly 162 games combined in his last two minor league seasons. The carnage inflicted on minor league hurlers has been immense. He batted .315/.387/.604 with 44 doubles, 40 home runs and 138 RBI in 691 plate appearances over that time.

As if his slugging exploits in the minor leagues were not enough of a resume builder to warrant a look in spring training. Gattis was hard at work with Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .303 with 16 homers 53 games.

Coming to camp this year, Gattis has a chance to earn a spot as the back-up catcher while McCann rehabs his shoulder. However, he has only 182 at-bats above the Class-A level.

Gattis has done well through the first two weeks of spring training, going 8-for-19 with a home run and three RBI. There is some question about his defense, both behind the plate and in left field, but he would truly be a reserve player were he to break camp with Atlanta.

O’Brien opined in the AJC that placing Gattis on the big-league roster without regular playing time is an interesting proposition. It was was one he discussed with Braves general manager Frank Wren.

If he had big-league experience, Gattis’ catcher-outfielder versatility and big bat would make him a natural for a bench job.

“No question,” Wren said. “That’s a tough role for a young hitter. But he’s making himself a better fit for a team because he can do a couple of things. He’s not locked into one position.”

The Braves must factor in what best serves the club, as well as what is best for the burgeoning slugger. More time in the minors would allow Gattis to continue his development as catcher, a spot where he could fit into the long term plans. Left field, meanwhile, is occupied.

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Christian Bethancourt has drawn rave reviews for his defense since signing with the Braves in 2008 as a non-drafted free agent. His bat, however, has yet to mature in his four seasons stateside.

Bethancourt, 21, represented Atlanta in the Futures Game during All-Star festivities last season. Injuries and inconsistency led to just a .243/.275/.291 in 71 games with Double-A Mississippi in 2012, so one can gain a pretty decent understanding of Bethancourt’s defensive prowess to have made the mid-season trip to Kansas City.

He has been ranked the best defensive catcher in the Braves organization three of the last four seasons by Baseball America, who also rated him the top receiver in the Southern League in 2012.

Atlanta added Bethancourt to the 40-man roster in November. His ability to throw out runners is well documented, 39 percent caught stealing with Mississippi last year and 34 percent since debuting with the GCL Braves in 2009.

Though his career .265 average is not bad, Bethancourt’s power numbers have simply not materialized. He has just 14 homers in 1,336 minor league at-bats. Walk totals are not exactly pumping his on-base percentage up either.

He will have a little extra work to do to round into form this spring, after a broken hand ended his 2012 season in August. Bethancourt was able to play 23 games of winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but batted just .224 with three doubles in 58 at-bats for Licey.

With nearly six months to heal and build strength since the injury, Bethancourt will be looking to turn the corner offensively this season. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told Mark Bowman of that he is already seeing some improvement with the bat this spring.

“That swing has gotten better. When you listen to the reports and hear the guys talk, they always talk about his swing and say he’s not ready yet. But just watching batting practice and the four at-bats I saw in winter ball, I think there is improvement there.”

As he continues to mature, Bethancourt is using his time in big league camp to his advantage. It is an all-around learning experience, as he told David O’Brien of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

“This is my third year (in major league spring training), and I learned a lot my first two. I learned from B-Mac and David Ross. I want to keep doing the same, just learning…. I go wherever they send me, just go play baseball. It doesn’t matter if it’s low-A, high-A, Double-A Triple-A, I’m just going to play.”

There is no question that his hitting requires some work before he has any chance to supplant McCann as Atlanta’s everyday catcher. For now, he will have a chance to impress Fredi Gonzalez and company in spring training before likely heading to Gwinnett to open the season.

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