Guerry Clegg commentary: Evan Gattis' talents leave Braves with questions

sports@ledger-enquirer.comApril 20, 2013 

It started as a facetious thought every time Evan Gattis did something else improbable. Now it has become valid question:

What do the Atlanta Braves do when Brian McCann is ready to come off the disabled list?

And now, the problem, if you want to call it a problem, is broader.

What do the Braves do when first baseman Freddie Freeman returns to the lineup this week?

Let's start with what we do know:

Gattis needs to play. He might be the third-best hitter on the team behind Justin Upton and Freeman.

We also know that Chris Johnson has to play. He might be the team's hottest hitter.

We know that Freeman needs to play. He has been the team's best clutch hitter over the past two years and is exceptional defensively.

But we also know pulled rib cage muscles can be nagging, especially over a long season. If the Braves run into as much cold weather as expected in Colorado, it would be wise to bring Freeman back cautiously. Gattis has proved himself capable at first base, especially on a part-time basis. Then they go to Detroit, so Gattis could DH for three games.

The bigger issue, though, remains what to do when McCann is ready to rejoin the team, which should be in about three weeks. When healthy, McCann is one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. The Braves need his experience and leadership, especially as the long season becomes a grind. McCann's immeasurable asset is the pitchers' comfort level with him behind the plate.

Trading him isn't an attractive option. What would they want in return? They are set at every starting position. Yeah, Dan Uggla's enormous slumps have become maddening. But they're not going to relegate Uggla to the bench with some $39 million still owed to him through 2015. Trying to find someone to take Uggla's contract in a package deal is wishful thinking.

They won't bench Andrelton Simmons because his defense at shortstop is too valuable even if Simmons continues to slump offensively.

The only obvious need is a fifth starter for the rotation with rookie Julio Teheran struggling. But Brandon Beachy should return from the disabled list soon after McCann does.

Trading McCann for prospects would be a waste because the Braves are trying to win now.

So how can the Braves find a way to get Gattis's bat in the lineup, beyond the 10 games at American League parks? One option is to give him a few starts in left field, where he played some last year in the minors, move Justin Upton to right, and let Jason Heyward sit some games.

Gattis began spring as an intriguing prospect -- a strong hitter with power to all fields. It turns out he's much more than that. He's a complete major league player, whose production exceeds his experience level. He has hit everywhere he has played, from Danville in rookie ball, to Rome and Lynchburg in Class A, to Mississippi in Double-A, to winter ball in Venezuela, and now in the big leagues.

Yet, there are still unknowns. How will he handle the grind of the long season? How will he adjust when pitchers start developing a book on him?

But that's another reason Gattis needs to play. McCann's contract is up after this season. He will become a free agent. As hard as it would be to part with someone who has been so productive and popular, the Braves could use the $12 million slotted for McCann to keep Paul Maholm, who also will be a free agent. But before they let McCann leave, they need to see more of Gattis to know if he's their catcher of the future.

One thing seems clear: He's their catcher of the present.

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