Major League Baseball 2013: Brian McCann, Evan Gattis Decision A Tricky One For Bullpen Thin Braves

Evan Gattis has been key to the Braves early success this season (Daniel Shirey/Getty Images North America)

Evan Gattis has been key to the Braves early success this season (Daniel Shirey/Getty Images North America)

Well decision time is near in Braves country. Isn’t it funny how things play out?

Before the start of the season the Atlanta Braves catching situation was “questionable” at best. Six-time all-star catcher Brian McCann wasn’t expected back until mid-May, they signed Gerald Laird to fill the role left by David Ross when he signed with the Red Sox, and they were trying to figure out whether or not the enigmatic Evan Gattis should even be given a spot on the roster.

In stark contrast the Braves bullpen featured all-star closer Craig Kimbrel, should-have-been-an-all-star-by-now Eric O’Flaherty assuming duties in the seventh or eighth inning, and 2011 all-star Jonny Venters pitching whichever inning he was given because, realistically, it wouldn’t matter. For good measure, the Braves traded Tommy Hanson to the Los Angeles Angels for (yet another) 2011 all-star Jordan Walden basically giving Fredi Gonzalez another flamethrower at his disposal to shorten the game to six-innings if necessary.

But as the always entertaining Joe Garagiola once said: “Baseball is drama with an endless run and an ever-changing cast.”

Such is true for the Braves as the cast has changed completely in their bullpen. Ravished by injuries to Eric O’Flaherty (Tommy John surgery), Jonny Venters (Tommy John surgery), and Jordan Walden (shoulder) the Braves have recently had an issue getting the ball to Craig Kimbrel to finish games. On the flip side the catching for the Braves has been nothing short of spectacular as Evan Gattis (12 HR, 32 RBI) and Brian McCann (6 HR, 14 RBI, .281 BA since return from the DL) have both given the Braves lineup a high level of production.

As constituted the Braves, even with Jordan Walden scheduled to return within the coming weeks, have to make a move to improve this bullpen. Anthony Varvaro, Luis Avilan, and Cory Gearrin are all learning to handle late situations on the fly, but if the Braves hope to continue atop the National League East (and into the playoffs) they have to get a reliable arm in the event Walden doesn’t come back healthy and those other young pitchers can’t handle the summer heat of a pennant race.

I’ve heard quite a few people state that McCann is the obvious trade candidate because he isn’t signed beyond this season and will surely be looking to get the value he deserves. I’ve also heard some say Evan Gattis should be traded because he is obviously their most valuable piece to date and would clearly yield the highest return. While I understand both sides of the decision I have, and always will say, McCann is the superior talent to Evan Gattis whether you want to believe me or not. That said, bat speed, power, and a penchant for hitting in the clutch don’t grown on trees.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is: its complicated.

Options abound for these Atlanta Braves. Some, even include keeping both Gattis and McCann for the foreseeable future and some don’t. If I’m in Frank Wren’s chair here is what I see as I’m mulling my options:

  • For starters, I see Tim Hudson struggling to the point where it would be very hard to bring him back at anything close to his current salary ($9 million in 2013)
  • Paul Maholm is pitching well (6-4, 3.74 ERA), but the Braves will have his contract off the books after this season as well ($6.5 million in 2013)
  • Julio Teheran, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, and Kris Medlen are your foreseeable top four of the future in the Braves rotation (so please, stop with the requests to put any of them in the bullpen)
  • J.R. Graham and Sean Gilmartin are the next guys in line to join them from the minors
  • Jordan Schafer (.299 BA, 2 HR, 6 SB) has raised his stock to a level that makes him just as attractive as any on their ballclub, as is Reed Johnson and his .290 BA against lefties
  • Brandon Beachy will be back by late June, and the plan isn’t to bring him along as a reliever

So what do I as Frank Wren do? Well, I have at least $15.5 million dollars coming off my books at the end of 2013. $6.5 million of that (Maholm) can be eliminated at the trade deadline and coupled with Reed Johnson (like he was in the Cubs trade) to another team for rental bullpen help. That allows the trio of Varvaro/Avilan/Gearrin to slide into pressure roles a little more sporadically until proven they can handle it. It also provides insurance in case Walden doesn’t get over the injuries. With Schafer playing better than B.J. Upton to this point, I’m not a fan of trading his speed and plus defense in center and I see Reed Johnson as a more expendable part. You bring back Beachy in the fifth spot, even having the luxury of (assuming Tim Hudson gets things figured out) skipping his turn in the rotation every now and again for rest (utilizing a four-man rotation of Medlen, Minor, Teheran, and Hudson).

I mentioned the monetary part of it for this reason: Brian McCann can be had for between $14 and $15 million dollars per season. I fully believe that he is one of those rare birds in the game that if his hometown team offered him fairly to start negotiations he would jump at the opportunity to stay in Atlanta. Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward, and Kris Medlen don’t reach free agency until 2016. Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel won’t see the market until 2017. Andrelton Simmons is even farther away, not reaching free agency until 2019. I understand the yearning to lock up the young talent, but the Braves have some wiggle room to see who will legitimately be worth the top dollars a few years down the road. And with Dan Uggla’s contract running up in 2016 (along with Justin Upton) they’ll also be able to see how the rest of their days play out.

So you keep Gattis through his arbitration years realizing that teams would be willing to pay a very large premium for him this season or later down the road. If he continues to hit, his stock only rises. if he doesn’t, you’re no worse off because you’ve already got your guy in place. You think the Yankees, Rays, Mariners, Athletics, etc. couldn’t use a catcher with his skill? I’m all for trading Gattis while the stock is high (because the return at this point could be considerable) but I also agree with keeping him for a key bench piece/DH in American League matchups.

Bottom line: Frank Wren has some decisions to make.

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