Each spring training, a number of young players make their mark, hoping it will help them bridge the gap between the minors and the major leagues. This year, Atlanta Braves prospect Evan Gattis is already turning heads, but the team and its fans should lower their high expectations.
The right-handed Gattis is a 26-year-old catcher, who also has some experience at first base and in the outfield.
The Dallas Morning News’ Kevin Sherrington wrote that Gattis was a star high school player, earning a scholarship to Texas A&M University. Unfortunately, he never played there, as a fear of failure drove him to a drug problem, forcing him into rehab.
After completing treatment, Gattis played baseball briefly for an Oklahoma junior college, before leaving and spending the next four years traveling the country doing menial jobs, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s David O’Brien.
In 2010, Gattis decided to give baseball another chance and enrolled at Division II University of Texas- Permian Basin, where he hit .403 with 11 home runs in a park that Sherrington says “plays big.”
The Braves liked his power potential and selected him in the 23rd round of that year’s draft.
Since starting his professional career, Gattis has been an offensive juggernaut. In 222 career games, he has hit a combined .308 with 44 home runs and 167 RBI, while posting an impressive .374 OBP and .920 OPS.
His best year came in 2011, when he hit .322 with 22 home runs and 71 RBI in 88 games for Class-A Rome. Unfortunately, that represents the most games he has played in any of his first three professional seasons in part because of nagging injuries.
Because of his prodigious production, he is starting to receive an abundance of accolades and mentioned as a possibility to break camp with the Braves because of Brian McCann’s injury. However, such talk is premature and Gattis should be evaluated more objectively.
While Gattis has raked in the minors, all but 49 of his games have come below Double-A, meaning he has consistently been older at every level he has played. His physical and mental maturity compared to his opponents cannot be overlooked when considering his production.
In a separate article, O’Brien reported that Gattis dominated this year’s Venezuelan Winter League, by hitting .303 with a league-leading 16 home runs. While certainly impressive, that league is a mixed bag of talent and certainly not at a major league level, despite the participation of some active players.
The irrational cry for Gattis continued Saturday after his first spring training game, when he had a home run and a double against the New York Yankees. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez gushed to O’Brien, “That’s what he can do. It’s good to see. We’re just going to have to come up with a spot for him.”
It would be great to see Gattis complete his comeback story and become a major league player, but the overreaction to his play is reaching ridiculous levels.
Lost in the aftermath of that first spring training game was that his two hits came against Bret Marshall and Mikey O’Brien; two marginal prospects who both pitched at Double-A for the first time last season.
While Gattis’ bat is his best weapon; his defense is a liability.
Atlanta assistant general manager Bruce Manno was generous in describing Gattis’ ability behind the plate to O’Brien:
Defensively he’s gotten better behind the plate. He just needs work. His arm’s good enough, it’s just a matter of—with a lot of guys—you work on the feet, the footwork. Coming out quicker, that kind of stuff. But he’s doing that.
Although Gattis started getting some work in the outfield last season, in addition to some previous experience at first base, he is a lead-footed 6’3” and 240 pounds. Additionally, the Braves are set with Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward and Justin and B.J. Upton slotted to play those positions on a daily basis.
To become truly major league-ready, Gattis needs to play regularly. That won’t happen if he is kept on the Braves’ roster. The best thing for his development will be aggressively playing him in the minors this year and seeing if he can continue hitting while finding a position he can competently handle at the next level.
With any luck, Gattis could do a reasonable impression of Josh Hamilton; a painfully talented player delayed by personal issues, who ultimately made good in the majors.
Atlanta and its fans need to be patient and not heap too many expectations on Gattis before he is ready. He may have started his career later than most, but giving him the needed time to develop will be in his and the team’s best interests.
Statistics via BaseballReference