While we wait for a decision as soon as this week from the guy with the second-best nickname currently associated with a Brave or potential Brave, free-agent center fielder B.J. “Bossman Junior” Upton, let’s consider the ongoing winter-ball performance in Venezuala by the guy with the even better nickname, Evan Gattis, aka “El Oso Blanco” (The White Bear).
(Coincidentally and apropos of nothing, there are El Oso Blanco supermarkets in Miami and the Tampa area, where Bossman Junior has spent his major league career until now with the Rays.)
While we’re on the subject, just imagine a Bossman Junior and El Oso Blanco (along with a J-Hey) in the same outfield some day. Hey, it might not be so far-fetched, considering the Braves and Phillies are believed to be frontrunners for Upton, and considering Gattis is once again answering the latest challenge before him by continuing to slug at a high rate against higher level competition than he’d previously faced.
In the Venezuelan League — generally considered to be the equivalent or close to a Triple-A league — Gattis hit another dramatic ninth-inning homer Friday to lift the Zulia Eagles to a 3-1 win and into first place.
Despite a recent two-week slump, Gattis was hitting .275 with eight homers, 26 RBIs, a .336 OBP and .504 slugging percentage (.839 OPS) in 34 games before Sunday, and his mostly Latin teammates gave him the El Oso Blanco nickname for his size, power and ethnicity.
Zulia fans have also grown fond of the thick-armed American, an old-school ballplayer who wears no batting gloves.
The catcher-turned-left fielder has been used mostly as a DH until in the Venezuelan season, but played more in the field recently. He’s teamed with fellow Braves minor leaguer Ernesto Mejia to give Zulia arguably the best power-hitting duo in the winter league.
Both ranked among the league’s top five in home runs and RBIs, and the top 10 in slugging percentage.
Mejia, a first baseman who has hit .296 with 69 doubles, 50 homers and 191 RBIs over the past two seasons in Double-A and Triple-A, has continued to crush baseballs this winter in South America, where he had a .345 average and was tied for the league league in homers (10) and RBIs (28) before Sunday.
Mejia had a .368 OBP and .600 slugging percentage, albeit with 42 strikeouts and only four walks in 145 at-bats before Sunday. Mejia had 132 strikeouts with 34 walks in 514 at-bats at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2012, down from his career-high 156 strikeouts (with 58 walks) in 499 at-bats in Double-A in 2011.
Three things that don’t work in Mejia’s favor in terms of major league viability: His age (he’ll be 27 next week), his propensity for swings-and-misses, and, at least as it pertains to his big-league chances with the Braves, his position — dude doesn’t play any position except first base, and the Braves have a real good first baseman as you’re probably aware, 23-year-old Freddie Freeman, who won’t even be arb-eligible for another year).
Mejia has toiled eight seasons and more than 700 games in the minors without a sniff of the major leagues, but was added to the Braves’ 40-man roster this winter. That’s a good sign for him future. It says the Braves knew he’d likely be snatched in the Rule 5 draft if they didn’t protect him, and that they felt there was good reason not to let that happen.
The Venezuela native signed with the Braves in ’02 and has spent all but one season of his pro career with the Braves (he also played in high-A and Double-A with the Royals in 2010), but not until the past couple of seasons did he start to really look like he might have legit big-league potential.
International League mangers voted him the best power-hitting prospect in that league after he hit .296 with a .347 OBP and 24 homers in 2012 at Gwinnett and led the league in RBIs (92), hits (152) and total bases (258).
“I think we were impressed with just his overall development as a hitter, showing more power,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “He’s becoming a more prefessional hitter. He got our attention enough that we felt we should put him on the major league roster and see if he could take it to next level.”
Whether as a backup first baseman and bat off the bench, or a potential trade piece, Mejia has pounded his way to relevance among big-league decision makers.
Meanwhile, the younger Gattis – he turned 26 in August – is considered a legit strong prospect by the Braves, despite his age. There aren’t many, if any, 26-year-old prospects in baseball, but there also aren’t any other current up-and-comers with a story as unusual as that of Gattis.
If you missed his story last spring, he’s the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Texan who was out of baseball nearly four years after walking away from a Texas A&M scholarship and going on a personal quest of sorts to find deeper meaning or purpose in life while traveling the western U.S. and working odd jobs. I chronicled his colorful past in this story during spring training.
He got a non-roster invitation to big-league camp last spring after racking up 22 homers and a .986 OPS in just 88 games at Class-A Rome in 2011. After getting off to a blazing start at Class-A Lynchburg in 2012 — .385 with nine homers, 29 RBIs and a bloated .821 slugging percentage in 21 games — he missed nearly half a season with a wrist injury soon after his Double-A promotion, where the Braves had moved him primarily to left field in order to hasten his potential path to the majors.
“He was on the verge of doing some amazing things, putting up some serious numbers,” Double-A manager Aaron Holbert said of Gattis, who struggled initially to regain his stroke after returning, but still ended up with nine homers, 37 RBIs and an .865 OPS in 49 games at Mississippi. “It was unfortunate he got injured, but hopefully he’ll start right off next year and get back to work and see where it lands him.”
Gattis made Baseball America’s Double-A postseason All-Star team despite missing much of the season. He was the only Braves minor league to make a BA minor-league All-Star team in any classification.
When someone mentioned Gattis is a great story because of his background, Holbert said, “He really is. He’s got some amazing power. He did a good job in left field. We put him out in left field to see if that could somewhat speed up his progression to the major leagues, and he did a fair job.”
Despite his middle-linebacker size, Holbert said Gattis was athletic enough to play left field.
“He is. He did a good job,” he said. “He comes in on the ball well. Does what he’s supposed to do. Hits his cut-off man, which is all we can really ask.”
Gattis hasn’t caught much since early in the 2012 season, but continued to work on his catch-and-throw skills during workouts or batting practice in an effort to stay sharp behind the plate. Braves catcher Brian McCann is expected to miss 2-4 weeks and possibly more at the beginning of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery, and as of now, newly signed backup catcher Gerald Laird stands as the only sure thing with the Braves’ catching situation.
With that in mind, there’s a possibility that Braves catcher prospect Christian Bethancourt or Gattis could possibly get a chance to play early in the season. Bethancourt also missed much of last season with injuries and struggled against Double-A pitching, so Gattis might have an edge over him if the Braves decided to turn to an inexperienced catcher to back up Laird until McCann returns to the starting role.
If not, Gattis might also get consideration for a backup outfield/pinch-hitting job at some point. His power commands attention, and so far he’s shown he can hit at every level to which he’s been promoted.
• Bossman Junior: In case anyone thought I was kidding about B.J. Upton’s nickname, I wasn’t. His name is Melvin Emmanuel, but goes by B.J., “Bossman Junior,” a reference to his father, Manny Upton, who was known as Bossman.
By the way, remember when a bunch of the Rays wore Mohawk haircuts during the ’08 postseason? Bossman Junior started that.
It was during that postseason when I, like plenty of others, watched B.J. and thought, this guy is the next superstar in baseball. I mean, he was unbelievably good in the first two rounds of that postseason, collecting a triple and three homers in four games against the White Sox in the division series; hitting .321 with a double, four homers, 11 RBIs and a .394 OBP in a seven-game ALCS win vs. Boston, and stealing four bases in the five-game World Series loss to Philly.
Upton hit .273 with a .383 OBP, nine homers and a career-high 44 stolen bases in that ’08 season, the first of three consecutive seasons with more than 40 steals. This after hitting .300 with 24 homers and a career-high .386 OBP in his first full season in 2007.
So what’s happened since? Well, he didn’t become the next superstar in baseball, although he does have a package of speed and power that’s uncommon these days.
Upton, 28, hasn’t made an All-Star team or won any significant award, hasn’t finished in the AL’s top 10 in offensive WAR since his 10th-place in ’07, and hasn’t ranked among AL leaders in any major offensive category more than once except stolen bases (after 44, 42 and 42 from 2008-2010, he had 36 in ’11 and 31 in ’12) and strikeouts.
He ranked among the AL’s top six in strikeouts for six consecutive seasons, and is 40th among active players with 1,020 strikeouts (in 3568 at-bats), including more than 160 in each of the past three seasons.
Upton is believed to be considering offers from the Braves and Phillies, and could decide before the Dec. Dec. 3-6 Winter Meetings in Nashville. Cincinnati has also expressed interest and Washington might also be involved, but it’s believed the Nationals are more interested in Braves free agent Michael Bourn and don’t feel it’s imperative to add a veteran center fielder at all this winter.
The Braves made Upton their top center-field target after it became apparent that Bourn’s contract demands via agent Scott Boras would likely exceed what they had in mind and that the Bourn situation could drag on past the Winter Meetings, as Boras free-agent negotiations often do. They haven’t officially ruled out Bourn, but the Braves have been operating under the assumption that he’ll play elsewhere.
As for B.J. Upton, his pluses: He’s increased his home-run totals each of the past four seasons, to a career-high 28 in 2012. He has 51 homers and 159 RBIs over the past two seasons and could give the Braves the needed right-handed presence in their lineup – which they thought they were getting when they traded for Dan Uggla after the 2010 season.
Upton is also a quality center fielder, though not as good as Bourn. (His arm is easily better than Bourn’s, but otherwise Bourn is the superior defender.)
The negatives, as I see them: In recent years Upton has sacrificed contact for power. His OBP slipped from .386 and .383 in his first two full seasons to a woeful .298 in 2012.
He had a career-high 169 strikeouts with a career-low 45 walks in ’12. The Braves had three of the NL’s top 10 strikeout leaders last season in Uggla (168), Bourn (155) and Jason Heyward (152), and would be replacing one of those (Bourn) with someone who struck out even more.
But if they don’t feel like they can or want to pay the going rate to bring back 30-year-old Bourn and risk his speed diminishing in the latter years of a long-term contract, and if free agent Angel Pagan can’t be lured away from San Francisco at a reasonable rate, it’s tough to argue that there are better options than Upton (and no, I don’t consider Josh Hamilton and his baggage and salary somewhere between $20 million and $25 million annually in a long-term contract to be a better option for a team with a payroll below $100 million).
That is, unless the Braves could trade for Denard Span to play center field and then get a big-time power hitter for left field. That might be difficult, given the talent the Twins are reportedly asking for in any trade for Span. However, it might be more a case of the Twins aren’t ready to trade yet, but when they are Span could be available for a reasonable return.
But if they don’t get B.J., the Braves might have to consider meeting the demands of either the Twins or Rockies (Dexter Fowler) in a trade or blow away the Giants’ offer to Pagan. Personally, I think Fowler’s disparity in his home-road splits is a bit too severe to give up considerable talent for the Milton High graduate.
If not Upton, then the Braves could look to fill center at a lower salary than the $15 million or so that he will probably get – Span is under contract for two more seasons at an affordable $4.75 million in 2013 and $6.5 million in 2014, with a $9 million team option for 2015; Pagan might command upwards of $10 million annually – and instead spend more in left field.
Some compelling names are available for left field, but will cost multiple prospects in return. The Braves haven’t and aren’t expected to talk to the Royals about super outfield prospect Wil Myers, whom Kansas City would only trade if they get back a top pitcher (not a pitching prospect). But the Royals’ Gold Glove left fielder Alex Gordon is also available, and if the Braves have the werewithal to put together a trade package that includes pitching, as well as pay the $31.5 million that Gordon is owed over the next three seasons.
Then there is Upton’s young brother Justin, who finished fourth in the NL MVP balloting in 2011. He’s available, Dbacks GM Kevin Towers has said, but it seems doubtful the Braves, unless they really get desperate, would be willing to part with the package of multiple top prospects and/or young players it would take to get that Upton. Even then, the Braves wouldn’t trade Andrelton Simmons, the player that Arizona covets. No way.
Among other free-agent possibilities for left field that I’m asked about, the Braves haven’t expressed interest in Nick Swisher and it seems unlikely they would, but I do get the impression Cody Ross could be a fallback option if some other things don’t work out for the Braves.
• Juan Francisco’s winter: Don’t forget about Juan Francisco. The Braves third baseman has been impressive this winter in the Dominican Republic, batting .333 (25-for-75) with four homers, 17 RBIs and a .386 OBP and .946 OPS in 20 games for Licey. He hit an epic homer in a game last week.
Braves hitting coach Greg Walker told him after the season that he must continue to work on the swing changes that Francisco worked on for much of the 2012 season, designed to eliminate the severe turn and dip that the left-handed hitter previously had with his left knee in mid-swing.
The Braves also told Francisco he needed to be in better shape when he reported to spring training than he was last year with Cincinnati. The Reds traded him to the Braves in the last week of spring training, and at times Francisco showed his immense raw power and serviceable skills at third base.
Wren said Francisco hired a personal trainer this winter and is checking in with the Braves frequently to update them on his progress.
The team’s plan all along has been to replace Chipper Jones by moving Martin Prado to third base full-time in 2012 and getting another left fielder. But that plan isn’t set in stone, and Prado has proven he can excel while splitting time at multiple positions if necessary.
Thus, it would behoove Francisco to finish off a strong winter-ball season and show up for camp in good shape, ready to compete for a possible job. Keep in mind he’s out of minor-league options, which is why the Reds traded him last spring instead of sending him down.
• Let’s close with the incomparable Otis Redding’s cover version of a folk standard, which you can hear by clicking here.
“DOWN IN THE VALLEY” as performed by Otis Redding
Down in the valley, ha
In the valley so low,
Hang your hair over your shoulder
And you can hear the four winds blow, now, oh my
Now can’t you hear the wind blow my love,
Can’t you hear the wind blow,
We’re down in the valley, ha
In the valley so low, now, ha
Now have you ever been lonely, lonely, ha
Now have you ever been sad
Did you ever really need some one, oh my
Who really needed
Gotta, gotta, gotta, ha, too much, ooh yeah
Help me baby, gotta get the groove
So too much, ooh yeah
It was down in the valley
In the valley so low
It was when I held you so tight
How can I ever let you go, go, go, go, ooh now
Now it was down, down, down, down, down, down, down
In the valley so low, ooh my
When I held you so tight, now
How can I ever let you go, now
Ah, good God
Too much, too much, too much groovin’ now
Too much, gotta
Down in the valley
We’re down in the valley
So low, so low, we can’t go no further
We’re down, we’re down too much
Gotta groovin’, groovin’, groovin’
Gotta, we can’t, we can’t, we can’t, we can’t, we can’t, we can’t, we can’t
Go no further, now
Gotta, gotta, good God almighty we gotta, gotta
Groovin’, groovin’, groovin’
Too much grippem
Watch it, watch it, watch it
Gotta, a good time we’re havin’
We gotta, gotta keep on, keep on groovin’
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog