Braves weighing backup backstop for start of year
With McCann out and Laird starting, Bethancourt, Pagnozzi and Gattis in mix
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- With the start of the exhibition season still four days away, it is far too early to start making assumptions about the makeup of the Braves' Opening Day roster. A number of variables will determine the direction manager Fredi Gonzalez will take while dealing with the fact that starting catcher Brian McCann is expected to miss at least the season's first two weeks while recovering from shoulder surgery.
While Gerald Laird will be quite capable of handling the starting catching duties in McCann's absence, it is harder to predict who will handle the backup role during this short stretch. The options are highly regarded prospect Christian Bethancourt, Matt Pagnozzi and the powerful Evan Gattis, whose defensive uncertainties become a little less troubling with every passing batting practice session.
Gattis has been lacing line drives that could be described as long and loud while facing pitches thrown by coaches over the past few days. But he really impressed on Monday morning when he got buzzed by a Craig Kimbrel fastball and then hit the curveball that followed to right field for what would have been a clean single.
"[Gattis] should be sitting in that locker room thinking, I need to make an impression and make this club, whether it's a right-hander off the bench or something else," Gonzalez said. "He's learning how to play the outfield. He can catch a little bit if you want to carry him as your third catcher. He can play a little bit of first base. But his bat is going to carry him."
If it was simply for a two-week stretch where they might only need to start him in two or three games, the Braves might be able to carry the 26-year-old Gattis as their primary backup catcher. But the attraction to carry him on the 25-man roster comes courtesy of his bat. When serving as the backup catcher, his opportunities to pinch-hit would be very limited.
With this in mind, the Braves could opt to begin the season with Bethancourt or Pagnozzi as their primary backup catcher.
Bethancourt is on the 40-man roster and is the leading candidate to replace McCann as Atlanta's starting catcher in 2014. The question is whether it is worth delaying his development by asking him to handle a backup role for a couple of weeks to begin this season. It might be more logical to have him spend that time playing on an everyday basis at the Minor League level.
If the Braves opt to begin the year with Bethancourt or Pagnozzi as their backup catcher, there is still a chance Gattis could be on the Opening Day roster as a backup outfielder who could play first base or the catcher's position when necessary. This would likely mean outfielders Jose Constanza and Jordan Schafer would both be left off the 25-man roster at the start of the season.
"That for me is still wide open," Gonzalez said. "It affects everything. You can mix and match and do whatever you want. But it's still just 25 guys [on the roster]."
Mejia's winter efforts impress Braves
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- With Freddie Freeman entrenched at first base, Ernesto Mejia does not appear to be a likely candidate for the Opening Day roster. But the big Venezuelan certainly caught the attention of the Braves with the success he produced last year at Triple-A Gwinnett and in the Venezuelan Winter League.
"He's an interesting guy," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You look at the roster and the way the team is set up, and you say he doesn't fit. Well, if we maybe want to bring a right-handed bat off the bench. ... Or you never wish somebody gets hurt, but at least you feel comfortable enough that he could fill in."
Mejia's odds of making the Opening Day roster are negatively influenced by the fact his defensive options are limited to first base. In addition, he has never been subjected to the challenges of staying ready as a bench player.
"I continue to do my best," Mejia said. "We'll see what they decide. The only thing I can do is my work on the field."
Mejia was named the Venezuelan Winter League's Most Valuable Player after hitting .298 with 16 homers and a .891 OPS in 61 games.
• Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said he plans to play all of his regulars at the start of Friday's exhibition season opener against the Tigers. He will announce his rotation for the exhibition season later this week.
• Outfielder Jose Constanza has still not been able to leave the Dominican Republic because of visa problems.
• The Braves are scheduled to appear on MLB.TV 18 times this spring.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.