10/9/2013 4:45 P.M. ET
Braves trust Gattis' ability behind plate, in left field
By Eric Single / MLB.com
ATLANTA -- For the first time in eight years, the Braves are faced with the possibility of uncertainty behind the plate, as catcher Brian McCann enters free agency with the possibility of leaving the franchise that drafted him in 2002.
If McCann chooses to go elsewhere, as many expect, Evan Gattis figures to see significantly more time at catcher than the 42 appearances he made in his breakout rookie season. But with Gattis still feeling out his defensive responsibilities at the Major League level -- both at his natural position behind the plate and in left field, where the Braves used him when McCann was healthy -- the move is not that simple.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez pointed out that veteran backstop Gerald Laird has one more year left on his contract and, should McCann leave, will likely split the everyday duties with Gattis, while top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt will get the chance to earn a roster spot after spending most of September up with the Major League club.
"Maybe not knowing what's going on, but you give Bethancourt a little chance and bring him along a little bit," Gonzalez said. "Go with Gattis and Laird, and throw Bethancourt a bone every once in a while, put Gattis out in left field because we know that he can do it."
Throughout their 2013 campaign and brief stay in the playoffs, the Braves expressed their willingness to live with Gattis' defense behind the plate and in the outfield for the chance to bolster the offense by giving him three to four plate appearances per game. He finished his first Major League season with a .243 average, 21 home runs and 65 RBIs in 105 games, nearly half of which he spent in left field.
"I don't even know how many games he ended up catching, but he does a good job," Gonzalez said. "Obviously, his bat is what's going to carry him. Shoot, I feel pretty good about him playing left field. He got better and better, or maybe we just got more comfortable watching him. He wasn't a train wreck. I could mention five or six [former players] off the top of your head that you cringe every time the ball went out there."
Gonzalez also said he planned to reach out to the heavy-hitting 27-year-old later in the offseason about putting in extra work on defense if McCann's departure puts more responsibility on Gattis heading into Spring Training.
"He's one of those guys that needs plans," Gonzalez said. "Some guys, they can figure it out, but with Gattis, I would make a phone call and say, 'We're thinking about you playing more left field than catching,' or, 'We want you to catch.' And I think it's good for him to do that. We'll go at it that way."
Heyward provides options with ability at leadoff, center
ATLANTA -- Manager Fredi Gonzalez cannot be sure of what the Braves' upcoming offseason transactions will add to the team in the way of offensive firepower, but he will take comfort in the stability Jason Heyward brought to the top of the order when he was healthy in the second half of 2013.
At the beginning of the season, the idea of Heyward as the team's everyday leadoff hitter seemed as improbable as the notion that he would man center field during the team's playoff run, and yet production concerns and injuries elsewhere in the lineup forced him into both roles down the stretch, yielding encouraging results. After hitting .223 in his first 72 games of the year, Heyward hit .325 after moving into the leadoff spot for the first time on July 27.
"He's done both and done pretty good," Gonzalez said. "The year before, he hit third most of the year and hit pretty good. You would like to have that prototypical leadoff guy, sure, and have Jason hit in the middle someplace and be productive. I think the world of him, because he brings energy, he can play defense, he can lead off, hit a home run, steal you a base. He can do a lot of different stuff."
Andrelton Simmons' struggles from the leadoff spot and Jordan Schafer's extended stay on the disabled list with a broken foot initially forced Heyward up in the order, and once the Braves ripped off 13 consecutive wins following the switch, Gonzalez elected not to change what was working.
With Simmons expected to further tap into his power potential lower in the order and Schafer still trying to recapture his first-half production on a more consistent basis, Gonzalez tabbed Heyward as the most likely leadoff man currently on the roster.
A productive campaign from B.J. Upton could have taken some of the pressure off the top of the Atlanta order this year, but Upton's .143 batting average coming out of April left him relegated to the bottom of the order and ultimately on the periphery of the Braves' postseason strategy. Gonzalez indicated Wednesday that the team's prized free-agent acquisition from last winter would get another chance to be the everyday center fielder for 2014.
"I don't think he's happy about his season," Gonzalez said. "I think the best thing for him and [Dan Uggla] is season's over, start over next year and see where we're at."
Heyward made an impression in the 20 games he spent in center, producing a string of strong defensive plays, highlighted by his diving catch that secured a one-run victory in New York on July 22, his third Major League start in center field.
"I saw him in places as a center fielder that I've never seen another center fielder be, and I'm not talking about catching balls," Gonzalez said. "I'm talking about roaming the center field like you would teach your high school guys. When the ball goes to left field on the ground, you [back up the play] in case the ball beats the left fielder, or a ball's off the wall and he's backing up the right fielder in case the ball gets over the head of the right fielder and he's there."
Regardless of whether Heyward returns to the role he was thrust into during the final months of the 2013 season, the flexibility the 24-year-old outfielder has displayed allows the Braves to get more creative with how his athleticism and imposing physical frame impacts each game.
"I don't know if he could play any better than he did in right field, but he sure enough didn't play any worse than any center fielder in the Major Leagues," Gonzalez said. "The only thing that looks out of place is he's 6-foot-5, 245 [pounds]."
• While Gonzalez is under contract through the end of the 2014 season, the members of his coaching staff are waiting to learn whether the organization will offer them a contract for next year. Gonzalez has praised his coaches multiple times over the past week and said he wants each to remain on his staff.
• Ramiro Pena proved quite valuable in the utility role he filled before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in early June. Pena expects to begin throwing again within the next two weeks and hopes to play winter ball.
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.