LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Catcher Brian McCann will start the season on the disabled list and likely miss at least a few weeks, which makes what Evan Gattis is doing this spring all the more important for the Braves.
Gattis hit his third homer in 24 hours Saturday, a second-inning solo shot against Houston that caromed off the black screen above the center-field fence at Champion Stadium, 25 feet above the field and directly over the 400-foot marker.
The 26-year-old rookie catcher/left fielder hit two homers Friday against Philadelphia and has a .388 average and team-best .796 slugging percentage. The homer off Astros right-hander Phillip Humber gave Gattis a team-high 10 extra-base hits in 49 at-bats.
He caught Julio Teheran’s splendid pitching performance Saturday – six scoreless innings, no hits, 10 strikeouts in a 3-2 win — after catching Friday when Paul Maholm gave up no earned runs (four unearned) in six innings against the Phillies.
Gattis hasn’t played above Double-A, but has hit for a high average and big power at every place the Braves have sent him, including a league-leading 16 homers in 195 at-bats this winter in Venezuela, where his .595 slugging percentage was 44 points above the league’s next-highest.
With McCann recovering from October shoulder surgery, veteran backup Gerald Laird was expected to handle the bulk of the catching duties in his absence, and Gattis came to camp hoping to compete with Christian Bethancourt and Matt Pagnozzi for the early season backup job behind Laird.
Gattis has been one of the Grapefruit League’s top hitters, and now it’s just a matter of whether the Braves decide to put him on the opening-day roster – it seems a high likelihood they will – and then what they’ll do with him once McCann returns. One option would be to keep Gattis as a third catcher and fifth outfielder at that point, giving the Braves a right-handed power bat off the bench.
If his defense was ever an issue, it’s not now. Now it’s just a question of whether the Braves believe Gattis would get enough playing time as backup catcher and perhaps later as a third catcher/fifth outfielder. If he’s on the opening-day roster, it’s possible he could start two or three games a week until McCann returns, instead of just once ever five days as backup to Laird, who has played little this spring after straining a calf muscle early in camp.
“I don’t think we feel any discomfort at all with his catching ability,” general manager Frank Wren said of Gattis. “I think it’s one of those decisions where you want to make sure you’re doing what’s best for the kid and the organization, and the team. You kind of look at those three-fold: One, is it going to hinder his development coming along? For the organization, are we hurting an asset long-term? And for the team, does this help us now?
“You’re weighing all three of those as you make a decision like that.”
To the third of those questions – does this help the team now? – the answer from the Braves clubhouse would be a resounding yes.
The fact that McCann will begin the season on the DL and likely miss three weeks or more affects the decision on backup catcher. If McCann weren’t going to be out long, the Braves probably wouldn’t add Gattis (or Pagnozzi) to the 40-man roster and have to use an option if they sent him to the minors later. Bethancourt is already on the 40-man.
“He’s going to start on the DL, so it really doesn’t matter,” Wren said. “I mean, if it was going to be three days, it might matter. But it’s going to be at least a couple of weeks at the very minimum – probably a little longer than that at the very minimum, by the time he goes out and actually catches, the rehab assignment…. We’re not adding somebody for a day, or two or three.”
If it were only for a short period, Wren said, “Then you might say, we don’t need to do (a 40-man roster move), we’ve got somebody on the roster.”
McCann update: He caught his first bullpen session Saturday and will begin hitting in minor league games Monday, Wren said. There still are several steps in McCann’s shoulder-surgery rehab and no set timetable for his return.
McCann has been limited to 120-foot long-toss throwing sessions until now. When throwing back to the pitcher in bullpen sessions a catcher doesn’t use his legs as he does long-tossing, putting more strain on the shoulder.
“He’s progressing fine. I don’t think he’s behind or ahead (of schedule),” Wren said. “I just think it’s progressing as you would expect, and as you get closer the improvement could happen very quickly once you get the shoulder strengthened. That’s why we don’t know, and we just keep it at a week at a time.
“It’s just a matter of how quickly the shoulder strengthens and responds and gets resilient. I mean, that’s the other part of it, it’s not just one day being strong, it’s being resilient and bouncing back the next day and being able to take the grind. We just don’t know those things.”
After a period of catching one bullpen a day, McCann will move to two per day, then three. Meanwhile, beginning Wednesday he’ll hit – but hit only – in some minor league spring-training games. He has been instructed to strictly avoid sliding, diving or colliding with anything or anyone until April 16, the six-month mark after surgery.
For the 2-1/2 weeks until then, McCann will stop at first base whenever he hits the ball or walks, and a pinch-runner will replace him. The Braves want to make sure he avoids contact or even the potential stress on the shoulder from avoiding a tag.
McCann will go to Atlanta with the Braves when they break camp after Thursday’s Grapefruit League finale, then return a few days later after a brief dead period at the Lake Buena Vista training site between the end of camp for full-season teams and the beginning of extended spring training.
It’s not been decided where he will play rehab games, or how many, after April 16. Wren said all those decisions would be made as McCann moves forward in his rehab and how his shoulder improves each week.