When it became clear the Atlanta Braves would be without All-Star catcher Brian McCann for the first month of the 2013 season, nobody could have guessed his fill-in would rise to become one of the most feared hitters in the National League.
Evan Gattis has been brilliant in the first five weeks of the season, hitting seven home runs with 18 RBI. He was the National League’s Rookie of the Month for April — no small task for a guy who was just hoping to make the team a month earlier.
Now, he must make room for the Face of the Braves.
McCann returns Monday from a prolonged recovery following offseason shoulder surgery, and he will likely start, according to Braves beat writer David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Manager Fredi Gonzalez intends to carry three catchers — McCann, Gattis and Gerald Laird — but only one can catch per game, and as long as he’s healthy, it will be McCann behind the plate on most nights.
Gonzalez can’t keep Gattis’ bat on the bench, though, so what will he do?
Here’s the role I project for Gattis with McCann back on the team: He’s going to have to be flexible, but he can still start multiple games per week. Until Jason Heyward returns from his appendectomy, Justin Upton can play right field and Gattis can play left field. As long as he shows competence in the outfield, Gattis will be able to play at least a few weeks in a fairly regular role.
Even the return of Heyward won’t spell the end for Gattis. McCann was given at least one day off per week in past years (hey, it gets hot in that catcher’s gear in Atlanta in August — the man will need a break), and you can be sure Gonzalez will take special care of his rehabbing All-Star in the early weeks. Gattis will be called on to close the gap and provide a spark behind the plate and in the batter’s box. Also, remember that Gattis played a little first base during Freddie Freeman’s injury, so he’ll have at least three positions available for fill-in duty.
This is all dependent on McCann staying healthy, of course. If the shoulder flares up, Gattis will be back behind the plate, assuming the role of starting catcher again.
Regardless of his next role, Gattis has made quite a splash in his first five weeks in the majors, and the Braves can only get better with the return of McCann.
Side note: The Braves embark on a 10-game road trip, starting Monday in Cincinnati. By the end of that road trip, the Braves will have played 39 games in the 2013 season. Of those 39 games, only 14 have been played at Turner Field. Quite the early-season gauntlet for the first-place Braves!