Now that Arizona outfielder Justin Upton has rejected a trade to the Mariners – Seattle was one of four teams on his no-trade list – and the Rangers reportedly moved on from Upton after deciding the price was too high, maybe the Braves have more leverage and could pull off a trade for the second Upton brother (ATL already has center fielder B.J.) without giving up such a bevy of young talent as Seattle agreed to part with.
But unless the Braves get the younger Upton for less than what Arizona GM Kevin Towers was asking earlier this offseason – Towers sought a package centered around shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who the Braves won’t trade – then Braves GM Frank Wren seems willing to go to spring training with the players they have now and see how things shake out before determining whether a big addition is necessary.
Justin Upton, 25, is signed for three more years – he’s owed $38.5 million over that period – and showed his huge potential in 2011 by hitting .289 with career-highs of 31 homers, 88 RBIs and an .898 OPS, finishing fourth in the NL MVP race. But that was sandwiched between 17-homer seasons with fewer than 70 RBIs.
Also, the younger Upton has an alarming disparity in his home/road splits — a .924 OPS at hitter-friendly Chase Field and .670 OPS on the road last season, and for his career a .937 OPS at home and .731 on the road.
Still, the talent is tantalizing and the thought of an fleet-footed outfield of Upton, Upton and Jason Heyward is intriguing. That trio could reasonably be expected to combine for 80-90 homers and perhaps 70-75 stolen bases.
Are the Braves prepared to give up a bounty for Upton that would put a dent in the team’s farm system and probably cost them at least one or two solid young pitchers? That remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, part of the reason Wren says he’d be willing to go to camp with what he has is Evan Gattis, aka “El Oso Blanco” (The White Bear), a nickname he got in the Venezuelan Winter League while pounding 16 homers (tied for the league lead) in 195 at-bats and hitting .303 with a .365 OBP and league-high .595 slugging percentage.
Gattis came home before the last few games of the Venezuelan season, as planned. He’s skipping the winter league playoffs and resting and preparing for spring training.
As you may know, Gattis is 26 and has yet to play above Double-A in the minors. That’s not a typical description of a major league prospect, to say the least. Most good young players have already shed the prospect label and put in at least a few seasons in the majors before their 26th birthday.
There are plenty of exceptions, however. The 2011 World Series champion Cardinals had a few of them — David Freese, who’d been a 27-year-old old rookie in 2010; and Allen Craig and Jon Jay, who each debuted at age 25 in 2010. I covered a 1999 Marlins team that had 27-year-old rookie Kevin Millar, who had been 25 when he spent a second full season at Double-A.
None of them had a background as unusual as Gattis, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound Texan who was was out of baseball for nearly four years, a period he spent searching for the meaning of life, or at least what he was going to do with his.
You’ve probably read or at least heard a little about his colorful past, but for those who haven’t, here’s the link again to the story I wrote last spring about his journey that included a brief stint in drug rehab and some almost-Kerouac years when he worked an assortment of odd jobs including janitor and ski-lift operator.
The Braves see Gattis — a catcher who began playing left field at their request last season — as a legitimate prospect. His body hasn’t taken the beating of most 26-year-old players, and Wren said the way the Braves figure, his peak years are ahead of him and the only thing his age really means is that his career might not be as long as it would have been had he never left the game.
He’s certainly making up for lost time.
Gattis received a non-roster invitation to big-league camp last spring after totaling 22 homers and a .986 OPS in just 88 games at Class-A Rome in 2011. And after getting off to a blazing start at Class-A Lynchburg in 2012 — .385 with nine homers, 29 RBIs and a Bonds-ian .821 slugging percentage in 21 games — he missed nearly half the season with a wrist injury.
He was hurt soon after his promotion to Double-A Mississippi, where the Braves moved him to left primarily 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 after returning from the DL, but still ended up with nine homers, 37 RBIs and an .865 OPS in 49 games at Mississippi.
He kept working on his catching on the side and in some games last season and this winter in an effort to prevent those skills from eroding. With veteran catcher Brian McCann expected to miss at least part of April recovering from shoulder surgery, there’s a chance the Braves could use Gattis some behind the plate if he were to have an impressive spring.
Gattis isn’t going to win any Gold Gloves catching, but he’s improved to the point where some in the organization believe he could play the position as a backup and help enough with his bat to offset any defensive shortcomings. The Braves also have his antithesis, 21-year-old catching prospect Christian Bethancourt, a cannon-armed Panamanian who might win Gold Gloves someday, provided he hits enough to become the Braves’ starting catcher.
In an injury-slowed 2012 season, Bethancourt’s first above Class A, he hit just .243 with two homers and a .566 OPS in 288 at-bats at Double-A, but still was selected to play in the prestigious Futures Game that was held during All-Star weekend in Kansas City. That’s how good Bethancourt’s defense is. But the Braves need to be careful and not rush him to the majors, even on a temporary basis, until they’re confident he can contribute and not be entirely overmatched offensively.
McCann will play in an option year of his contract in 2013 and then be eligible for free agency, and the Braves and McCann have agreed to put off any contract discussions until after the season. The team wants to see how he rebounds from major shoulder surgery, and you can bet they also want to see how Bethancourt develops in 2012 before determining their catching needs beyond next season.
If Gattis shows that he can play a decent left field, he could figure into the mix at that position if the Braves don’t add Justin Upton or another outfielder. The Braves also could still add either a platoon type to split duties with some combination from the group of Martin Prado, Reed Johnson, Jose Constanza, and possibly others including Jordan Schafer.
Based on reports they’ve gotten from their scouts and others in Venezuela, and what they saw from Gattis last year when he wasn’t hurt, the Braves think they might have something special on their hands. But until he does it at the big-league level, there are going to be at least as many skeptics as believers.
So far, Gattis has answered every challenge, pounding pitchers wherever the Braves have sent him during a minor-league career that’s included just 222 games and 933 plate appearances. He did the same against a motley assortment of Venezuelan pitchers that includes everything from raw youngsters to crafty has-beens.
“The only thing you can say is, he hasn’t stopped,” Wren said. “No matter what level we’ve put him at, he hasn’t stopped hitting. Just keep giving him an opportunity.”