PHOENIX – The Braves have lost valuable backup catcher David Ross to the Boston Red Sox, who nearly doubled the free agent’s salary with a two-year, $6.2 million contract.
The deal won’t be announced until after Ross passes a physical exam, and neither Ross nor officials with the Braves or Red Sox was likely to comment until then. Ross and team officials confirmed the pending deal.
With starting catcher Brian McCann expected to miss the first 2-4 weeks of the 2013 season recovering from Oct. 16 shoulder surgery, the Braves will look for another veteran catcher to help handle the position until the six-time former All-Star is ready. The Braves recently picked up McCann’s $12 million option for 2013, but he’ll be eligible for free agency after that.
Ross is widely regarded as the best backup catcher in baseball, and the Braves valued him a great deal both on the field and in the clubhouse, where he was one of the team’s most respected members during his time in Atlanta.
But they have a mid-market payroll and didn’t want to go beyond a one-year guaranteed contract for a catcher who’ll be 36 in March. Nor did the Braves want to double his salary.
Ross will make almost as much over the next two seasons with Boston as he made in four seasons with the Braves, who paid him $6.25 million combined in a pair of two-year contracts.
He hit .269 with 24 homers, 94 RBIs and a .353 on-base percentage and .816 OPS in 663 plate appearances (227 games) over four seasons with the Braves, including .256 with nine homers and 23 RBIs in 62 games in 2012. And his defense and game-calling were even better.
Ross’ role increased in the final two months as McCann’s shoulder worsened, and manager Fredi Gonzalez surprised many by starting Ross over McCann in the NL Wild Card Game against St. Louis. Ross hit a two-run homer to give the Braves an early 2-0 lead in that 6-3, season-ending defeat.
Now what for the Braves? They have Christian Bethancourt, one of the top catching prospects in baseball, but he just turned 21 in September and hasn’t played above the Double-A level. The strong-armed Panamanian missed time last season with injuries including a broken fifth metacarpal after being hit in the hand by a pitch late in the season, and the Braves don’t want to rush him before he’s ready.
Bethancourt hit just .243 with eight extra-base hits (two homers) and a .566 OPS in 71 games last season at Double-A Mississippi, after hitting .289 with 24 extra-base hits (five homers) in 99 games with two Class-A affiliates in 2011.
Someone to keep an eye on is Evan Gattis, an intriguing power hitter who began working more in left field last season as the Braves looked for a way to get his big bat to the major league level. That was because McCann and possibly Bethancourt would be blocking his path at catcher, and Gattis’ primary strength is his hitting rather than catching ability.
Gattis also hasn’t played above the Double-A level, but he was out of baseball for nearly four years and is 26, entering what should be the prime of his career. Because of his age, and the fact he’s continued to impress with his bat at every level – he’s currently thriving in the Venezuelan Winter League – the Braves might inclined to work Gattis at catcher again in spring training if they don’t bring in a catcher who’ll give them much offense until McCann returns.
Gattis had cooled some in the past 10 days in Venezuela before hitting his sixth homer on Saturday, giving him 18 RBIs in 25 games. He was hitting .264 with an .811 OPS before Saturday in the Venezuelan league, which is roughly the equivalent of a strong Triple-A league.
Gattis began the 2012 season by pummeling young pitchers at high-A Lynchburg, batting .385 with nine homers, 29 RBIs and a .821 slugging percentage and 1.289 OPS in 21 games before being promoted to Double-A Mississippi.
After missing nearly two months with a wrist injury soon after the promotion, Gattis came back and had 26 extra-base hits (four triples, nine homers) with 37 RBIs and an .865 OPS in 49 games for Mississippi, finishing the season with a combined .305 average, 18 homers, 67 RBIs and a .995 OPS in 74 games (314 at-bats) and only 43 strikeouts.
Still, given the inexperience of Gattis and Bethancourt and uncertainty of McCann’s health at least during the first part of the season, the Braves will presumably look to bring in another veteran catcher via trade or free agency.
Among the free agents available as potentially affordable backup catchers are Gerald Laird, Rod Barajas, Ronny Paulino, Miguel Olivo, Matt Treanor, Brian Schneider and Kelly Shoppach.