Any remaining question about whether the Braves are in rebuild mode was answered Wednesday when they traded slugger Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros in a deal for three prospects.
The Braves got two of the Astros’ top-10 prospects — right-hander Mike Foltynewicz and third baseman Rio Ruiz— and right-hander Andrew Thurman. Gattis was in Houston for a physical examination Wednesday and the trade was finalized and announced several hours later after those results were reviewed.
The Braves also sent 27-year-old minor league pitcher James Hoyt to the Astros in the deal.
Before the deal was finalized with Houston, the Texas Rangers were also in trade talks with the Braves about Gattis, a Texas native who lives outside Dallas.
The Braves have traded away three of their best and most popular players this winter – Gattis along with corner outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, who would both have been eligible for free agency after the 2015 season. Unlike them, Gattis was still four years away from free agency, which helped the Braves get plenty in return.
Foltynewicz, 23, a first-round draft pick in 2010, was rated the Astros’ No. 3 prospect last month by Baseball America. He’s a hard-throwing starter who made his major league debut in 2014 and had a 5.30 ERA in 16 relief appearances, after posting a 3.98 ERA with 478 strikeouts in 562 2/3 innings in five minor league seasons.
Ruiz, 20, hit .293 with a .387 on-base percentage, 50 extra-base hits (11 home runs) and 77 RBIs in high-A, and will be the Braves’ top third-base prospect after they recently traded away Kyle Kubitza. Ruiz was a fourth-round draft pick in 2012 and was rated the Astros’ No. 8 prospect by Baseball America.
Thurman, 23, a second-round pick in 2013, went 7-9 with a 5.38 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 115 1/3 innings last season in 26 games (20 setarts) in Single A.
Gattis, 28, a catcher who was penciled in for a move to left field this season if he had stayed with the Braves, was a year away from arbitration eligibility and hit more than 20 homers in each of his first two seasons despite playing fewer than 110 games each year.
The Braves still had four years of contractual control, but were concerned about the long-term durability of the 250-pounder, who has a knee that’s been twice surgically repaired and missed time last season with a bulging disk in his back and other health issues.
They decided that Gattis, whose nickname is El Oso Blanco — the White Bear — might never have higher trade value than now.
Gattis hit .263 with 22 home runs in 369 at-bats in 2014, the second-highest homer total on the team behind Upton, who hit 29 in 566 at-bats. Gattis’ planned move to left field was designed to make room for Braves rookie catcher Christian Bethancourt.
The Braves signed veteran A.J. Pierzysnki to serve as backup to Bethancourt.
Braves catchers tied for fourth in the majors in home runs with 22, and Gattis had all of them. Gerald 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 for his back, 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 homers in 495 at-bats in his first season with the Yankees.
Gattis has 43 homers, 117 RBIs and a .487 slugging percentage in just 723 at-bats (213 games) during his first two seasons. For some perspective: Nelson Cruz, who led the majors with 40 homers in 2014 for Baltimore, had 34 homers, 114 RBIs and a .463 slugging percentage after his first 721 at-bats (221 games).