Braves Look Within For Catching Help





ATLANTA—The opening of the hot stove league left the Braves pondering several questions, but none greater than the situation behind the plate.

Six-time all-star Brian McCann had surgery for a torn labrum in October that could keep him sidelined until late April. Regardless, the organization exercised its $12 million option on the veteran's contract for 2013.

McCann's backup David Ross signed with the Red Sox as a free agent, but then  the Braves did not consider the 36-year-old an everyday option anyway. That opens the door for catching prospects Christian Bethancourt and Evan Gattis, though the timing of those options is not ideal.

The 21-year-old Bethancourt has been heralded as a prospect since signing out of Panama in 2008, and he looked to be blossoming in 2011 after a successful stint at both Class A levels as well as the Arizona Fall League.

His catch-and-throw skills are on par with any catching prospect in the game, with a lightning-quick release that produces strong and accurate throws.

His bat, however, lags behind. Bethancourt struggled at the plate for the first two-thirds of the season at Double-A Mississippi in 2012, hitting just .243/.275/.291 with eight extra-base hits in 268 at-bats. He continued to fall victim to breaking balls out of the zone and his performance did not show signs of being ready for the jump to the big leagues.

Gattis, 26, also missed a significant amount of time at Mississippi in 2012, mostly due to tendinitis in his wrist.

Drafted in the 23rd round in 2010 out of Texas-Permian Basin, Gattis has displayed big raw power in his first three minor league seasons. He belted 22 home runs at low Class A Rome in 2011, then hit .258/.343/.522 with nine homers in 182 at-bats with Mississippi in 2012.

He also has promising raw defensive ability with a strong arm and good mobility for his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame. At the same time, Gattis has a long way to go with his game-calling ability and the overall refinements of playing the position, particularly at the big league level.

WIGWAM WISPS

• The Braves re-signed minor league catcher Matt Kennelly before he qualified for free agency, but they do not envision the Australian figuring into the big league mix in 2013.

• Righthander Zeke Spruill continued to make impressive strides in the AFL while displaying excellent command and a better feel for all of his pitches.