Saturday, November 8, 2014

WOW's Offseason Look at: Catcher

Since 1994, two players have dominated the playing time at catcher, providing the Braves with both consistency and top notch performance. After Brian McCann left the Braves for the higher tax bracket found in the Bronx, Evan Gattis took over last season. Gattis was a surprise in 2013 and his bat became such a focal point to the offense that the Braves dealt with his "defense" in left field just to get him into the lineup. While a rhomboid muscle injury (whatever that is) limited him in his first year as the starter, Gattis led the team in Isolated Slugging with .230 and belted 22 homers, second on the team. There is enough to suggest he might not get a second season, though.

Who we got?... Evan Gattis, Christian Bethancourt
Who's getting Arby?... Nobody (yay!)
Who might be going?... Gerald Laird
Who might be coming?... Yenier Bello

Like I was saying, Gattis was productive even though he was limited by both injury and Fredi's often confusing playing schedule that appeared to rest Gattis more than other catchers. Still, he put up numbers resembling his impressive rookie year of 2013. In fact, it was strangely similar. In 2013, he hit 22 homers and walked 22 times. In 2014? 21 moonshots and 21 walks. He was able to do that by walking 5.5% of the time in both seasons. Overall, though, it was a better season. Not limited by bench duty, Gattis posted a .352 OBA which was about a 30 point increase. He also enjoyed a 40 point increase in his BABIP, which we don't know enough to consider sustainable. Regardless, more balls eluding fielders naturally turned into more hits and a better OBP. Despite a limited campaign, Gattis matched McCann's 2.3 fWAR even though the former Brave played in 32 more games.

Gattis has tremendous power for a catcher. Only Devin Mesoraco posted a better ISO than Gattis and Mesoraco plays in a t-ball park. Now, Gattis is not without his issues. Beyond the health questions, his defense leaves something to be desired. His footwork is questionable and his arm doesn't grade highly (-2 rSB). Plus, his pitch framing is a far cry from McCann's quietly awesome work (-1.1 RAA). This looks especially bad compared to Christian Bethancourt, who lacks the quantity of advanced stats, but passes the eye test. C-Beth has a cannon and great footwork. But can he hit? The jury remains out just like it has been since the first day he signed. He has posted just one RC+ over 100 for a full season since his first year in the minors back in 2009. Now, this is slightly unfair because he was often in the midst of a decent offensive season before being promoted up to the chain. His defense has always been deserving of praise and has pushed him up to levels his bat wasn't prepared for. Still, outside of better power over the last two years (ISO's finally climbing over .100), he has shown very little improvement. He still doesn't take walks, though he doesn't K all that much, and is not led by a consistently high BABIP that produces a good batting average. And while he's a plus athlete at his position (he stole the catching position's only base in 2014), his offensive profile is more suited for a backup unless it improves. Nevertheless, if the Braves deal Gattis, C-Beth's the guy in 2015. The defense and pitching will see improvement, but Gattis is one of the few plus guys offensively.

David Ross's unsatisfying replacement, Gerald Laird, might attract some interest for a return trip as a mentor if the Braves trade Gattis away or decide that C-Beth's bat simply isn't ready. But I think it's more likely at this point that Laird will be headed elsewhere. He posted a fairly solid season for a backup catcher in 2013 (.739 OPS, .333 wOBA), but his numbers fluctuated the other way in 2014. Still, it's not like he was ever signed for his bat.

Yenier Bello is also an option. The Cuban defector was the oldest hitter in the Carolina League not on a rehab assignment when he finished the year with the Hillcats. Due to visa issues, he only played 15 games in the minors with half of them in the rookie league. As it should be expected for a guy feasting on pitchers 6 to 10 years younger than him, Bello did hit pretty well (.308) in his brief run. Bello wasn't known for his bat while in Cuba before defecting and it might be a bit much to ask for him to jump to the majors and be a capable backup catcher, but he's at least a depth option.

Depth Chart
1. Gattis
2. Bethancourt

The depth chart clearly could look very different by the time the winter is over. If Gattis is traded, the Braves might be forced to at least target a veteran who they would feel at least somewhat comfortable starting a good portion of the season if C-Beth's bat fails to show. If Gattis isn't dealt, the Braves might still target a veteran simply because they would rather C-Beth not spend the year getting a start every week.

There are also the creative options. Gattis could be moved to left field, even if only for a few times a week, to get C-Beth into the lineup and keep Gattis fresh. Or he could be moved there full time if Justin Upton or Jason Heyward is traded. This option, while it would get a better defensive option into the game behind the plate, will also hurt the team in left field and ruin Gattis's real value. Not sure the Braves should really consider this as an option. Gattis would be better suited for an AL-league where he could catch half of the time and DH to keep his bat in the lineup. For Atlanta, he's either the catcher or he isn't and that all depends on whether or not the Braves can find much of an offer for him.

It's debatable how much trade value he truly has, though. To me, it all comes down to the fit. Gattis has a lot of value to us, but his value to a team with a better situation behind the plate would not be strong because Gattis isn't that great of a hitter to DH 155 times and not frustrate a team. Considering he still has four years of team control, including one where he will earn very little, the Braves can't just take the best offer for him if it's not good enough. After all, a better offer may be available after the season. Gattis, like the situation with the corner outfield positions, could tell us a lot about what kind of team John Hart and company attempt to built.

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