Braves' Gattis homers in spring debut

Evan Gattis earned a splendid nickname – “El Oso Blanco,” aka The White Bear -- while leading the Venezuelan Winter League in home runs and slugging percentage. Now he seems intent on earning a roster spot with the Braves.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Texan hit a two-run, line-drive homer and a double in four plate appearances Saturday in the Braves’ 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees at Champion Stadium. It was the Braves’ second spring-training game and the first for Gattis, a catcher and left fielder who served as designated hitter.

“That’s what he can do,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said after Gattis dug a divot with his homer to the grass berm beyond left field and also lined a double over third base. “It’s good to see. We’re just going to have to come up with a spot for him.”

Gattis pulled a first-pitch line-drive double over third base off Brett Marshall in the fourth inning, and homered with one on and one out in the sixth on a 1-0 inside fastball from Mikey O’Brien. Marshall and O’Brien are right-handed prospects.

“It’s still early in camp,” Gonzalez said. “You’ll see (Gattis) play. You’ll see him play left field, you’ll see him DH whenever we get a chance. You’ll see him behind the plate. Because he’s got to bat, with that kind of bat.”

The Braves will consider carrying Gattis as backup to catcher Gerald Laird for the first two or three weeks of the season until starter Brian McCann fully recovers from shoulder surgery.

Another option is Gattis as fifth outfielder/third catcher/pinch-hitter, either after McCann returns or from the start of the season (in the latter scenario Matt Pagnozzi, Jose Yepez or Christhian Bethancourt could be backup catcher while McCann is out).

Gattis, 26, is an intriguing prospect who was out of baseball nearly four years until 2010. He doesn’t wear batting gloves – “Don’t need them when you’re that tough,” retired Braves manager Bobby Cox said while watching Gattis last week – and has a .308 average, 44 homers and a .920 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in three minor league seasons, none above Double-A.

“We know the numbers -- the power, not very many strikeouts, some base-on-balls,” Gonzalez said. “You’ve got to try to put him in someplace.”

Gattis has 140 strikeouts and 62 walks in 933 plate appearances in the minors. In Venezuela, he hit .303 with a .960 OPS and tied for the league lead with 16 homers in 195 at-bats, 50 fewer at-bats than either of the two other home run co-leaders.

“The time since my last at-bat is a little shorter than a lot of people, I definitely think it helps,” said Gattis, who played until late December in Venezuela.

He was strictly a catcher until moving to left field last season in Double-A. Gattis got hurt and didn’t get much time in the outfield during the season, then played left field about once a week in Venezuela while DHing the rest of the time.

He continued to catch bullpen sessions during the winter to maintain skills behind the plate, where his defense is serviceable. He has worked both at catcher and in left field this spring, and said he’s eager to play some games in the outfield and ultimately give Braves officials plenty to consider when they pick their Opening Day roster.

“But every day I’m focused on just getting better,” he said.