As the Atlanta Braves get set to activate Brian McCann from the disabled list on Monday in Cincinnati (via ESPN), a juggling act for playing time, at-bats and production will commence for Fredi Gonzalez.
Due to the emergence of 26-year-old power hitting catcher Evan Gattis, the Braves, playing without the luxury of the DH in the National League, must decide if the 2013 version of McCann, coming off of shoulder surgery, is truly their best option behind the plate.
Despite the heart-warming story of Gattis' rise to the big leagues, he's a flawed hitter. Despite his early season success, which includes mammoth home runs, middle-of-the-order power and success against Stephen Strasburg, the league has already begun to figure him out.
Following a 9-0 win over Washington on April 14, Atlanta was 9-0 in games where Gattis had appeared. In 39 plate appearances, Braves fans fell in love with a story and a bat that was slugging .735 with four home runs. Along with Justin Upton's red hot start, the Braves were scoring runs at will, bludgeoning their opponents and lessening the need for McCann's return.
From that date on, things haven't gone as smoothly. Over Gattis' last 59 plate appearances, he's posted a .224/.258/.446 line. While that's certainly more than acceptable for a back up catcher, it's nowhere close to the production of early April. If Gattis can continue to crank a home run every 20 at-bats, there will be a place for him on Atlanta's big league club, but the recent 16/2 K/BB ratio suggests more struggles are to come.
Meanwhile, McCann is healthy and ready to be penciled into the Braves lineup.
If he's the diminished player he looked like during most of the 2012 season (.230/.300/.399/.699, 87 OPS+), Gattis deserves a crack at multiple starts per week, especially against left-handed pitching.
On the other hand, prior to his troublesome shoulder ailment, McCann was one of the most consistently productive catchers in the sport.
From 2006-2011—McCann's first six years as an everyday player—he posted an .850 OPS, hit 131 home runs, played in the All-Star Game every season and won five Silver Slugger awards for his bat behind the plate.
While Gattis is just bursting on the scene at age-26, McCann was a four-time All-Star and entrenched in the middle of the Atlanta lineup at the same juncture.
Furthermore, a healthy McCann possesses two attributes that Gattis can't match.
First, he's left-handed.
Outside of Freddie Freeman, the Atlanta lineup has become predominately right-handed. For years, the presence of the switch-hitting Chipper Jones in the lineup made life difficult on managers in late-game situations.
Now, with recent additions like B.J. Upton, Justin Upton and Dan Uggla, the lineup leans very, very far to the right.
As managers line up powerful right-handed arms to face Atlanta, especially in the late innings of tight games, keep this in mind: Brian McCann's career OPS against righties is .856, or, in other words, identical to the career OPS of Carlos Beltran.
Second, McCann has never been an extreme strikeout hitter.
In a lineup where every regular hitter, excluding Andrelton Simmons, could easily surpass 100 strikeouts, McCann has never reached that plateau in a season.
He's averaged only 70 K's per season since arriving in 2005. Although Gattis' career has only provided a small sample size, his 22.8 percent strikeout rate lends itself to many more strikeouts over a full season than the career 16.2 percent mark of McCann.
#Braves lineup: BUpton 8, CJohnson, 5 JUpton 9, Freeman 3, Gattis 7, McCann 2, Uggla 4, Simmons 6, Maholm 1— David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) May 6, 2013
In reality, there should be enough at-bats in Atlanta to maximize the value of both McCann and Gattis this season.
Gattis has the bat to play against left-handed starters, power to change the game late as a pinch hitter, versatility to attempt another position and has already developed enough of a rapport with Atlanta's rotation to spell McCann often enough to keep him healthy over the long season.
Who should be Atlanta's everyday catcher?
Atlanta is a good team with an especially powerful offense. They can win with just Gattis. They would be even better with a healthy McCann.
Yet a McCann-Gattis combination is the best option moving forward.
Will Fredi Gonzalez be able to manage playing time for both Gattis and McCann?