For the first time since 2005, the Atlanta Braves will enter a season with uncertainty at the catching position. With Brian McCann now a member of the New York Yankees, the Braves will be forced to replace a leader, offensive star and possible future Hall of Fame inductee.
In this case, quantity over quality is the strategy in Atlanta. From Evan Gattis to Gerald Laird to Ryan Doumit to Christian Bethancourt, Atlanta has four players capable of suiting up behind the plate in 2014 and beyond.
From a slugger to a classic backup catcher to a versatile, proven hitter to a prospect on the fast track to The Show, manager Fredi Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren will have an abundance of options to choose from during a grinding 162-game campaign.
Unfortunately, they likely won't have one consistent star to lean on. During a nine-year career in Atlanta, McCann wasn't just a seven-time National League All-Star; he was the backbone of the franchise as aging icons faded away. From John Smoltz to Chipper Jones, McCann watched a generation of Atlanta greats depart as he became the face of the franchise.
When McCann took his 176 career home runs to New York—eighth-most in the history of catchers through their respective age-29 seasons—one of the most prolific offensive backstops in baseball left for the bright lights and American League.
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If the Braves are going to replace his production and leadership during the 2014 season, a team effort will be required. No individual—including the powerful Evan Gattis—can replace a Brian McCann.
Instead, the four-headed monster of Gattis, Laird, Doumit and Bethancourt can combine to give Atlanta a fascimile of the player they had for nearly a decade.
Individually, none can match the pedigree or all-around game displayed by the five-time Silver Slugger. Yet, all do possess interesting qualities that can be used to facilitate winning baseball in Atlanta.
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Gattis, the breakout rookie star of 2013, will enter the season as the starter and middle-of-the-order bat tasked with protecting Freddie Freeman in the lineup.
Although that won't be easy for a player with a grand total of 382 major league plate appearances, McCann believes his protege can do the job, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today.
"He deserves to be the starting catcher there,'' said McCann. "I felt like he was a hero last year for our team. He came up with some humongous hits. There's no reason he can't continue. The big thing is, can he do it every day?''
Due to the ability to play the outfield, Gattis can reprise a middle-of-the-order role in Gonzalez's lineup on nearly an everyday basis. Unlike most catchers, 30-plus games off won't be necessary for Atlanta's projected starter.
When he's not behind the plate, however, the Braves will need their depth to come through.
In Laird, a consummate professional is present. No, the career .246 hitter won't overwhelm opposing pitchers or change the game when at the dish. Instead, he'll handle the staff and help the rotation survive through an unfortunate rash of injuries.
Late in games, Gonzalez could turn to Doumit to pinch hit or jump behind the plate during a double switch.
When the Braves acquired the former Pirates and Twins slugger in an offseason trade with Minnesota, it was unclear what role he would play. Due to the ability to play first base, corner outfield and catch, the Braves will find a way to inject his 99 career home runs into the game plan.
Eventually, Bethancourt could emerge as a true heir apparent to McCann.
The 22-year-old prospect—rated as the No. 2 prospect in Atlanta's system by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus (h/t MLBDepthCharts.com)—is likely slated for Triple-A when the season opens. If Laird's scouting report on his teammate is accurate, it's just a matter of time before a reprisal of a 2013 cup of coffee in Atlanta, per Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
"Armwise he's in a league of his own," Laird said. "Defensively, he has a chance to be in a league of his own. He has a chance to be that good. You see him growing, taking his batting practice, the power is there. Now it's just a matter of him putting it all in his mind and being able to be consistent on a daily basis."
Wisely, the Braves opted to use depth and strength in numbers to replace a franchise leader and catching sensation. Of course, that doesn't mean that any combination of backstops in Atlanta will deliver anything close to the value McCann will provide the Yankees this summer.
As many franchises find out on a yearly basis, it's not easy to replace stars.
By the All-Star break, don't expect Braves fans to forget McCann's name. But don't be surprised if the power of Gattis, versatility of Doumit, acumen of Laird and upside of Bethancourt combine to do an admirable job for the Braves this summer.