Observations from the exhibition season’s first weekend
Whether or not it makes sense to include him on the Opening Day roster, Evan Gattis will draw a plethora of attention over the remainder of the Grapefruit League season. There is simply something intriguing about a 26-year-old prospect, who worked as a janitor and spent four years away from baseball before showing off his power potential at the Minor League level.
If attempting to predict how Gattis will fare during the exhibition season, I’ll say that he will likely hit something north of .380 with at least six home runs. That’s just what happens during Spring Training when hitters have a chance to feast on Minor League pitchers and big league pitchers who are focusing more on preparing for a season than pitching.
But will it really mean anything if Gattis produces these kind of numbers. We already know what he has done with the bat while going from an organizational depth guy to a potential big leaguer within a span of two years. But like every prospect, regardless of age, we won’t know if he can hit big league pitching until he gets a chance to do it during the regular season.
With Gattis, the situation is complicated by multiple factors. He is still learning to play the outfield and has had little time at first base. Some talent evaluators believe he would hit enough to overcome any defensive inefficiencies as a catcher — his primary position. But with the Braves he is not going to have an everyday role as a left fielder, first baseman or catcher.
So the question is, would his bat still be valuable if he was asked to primarily serve as a right-handed pinch hitter who could play left field, first base and serve as the third catcher? If he is getting fewer than 10 at-bats per week, would he still be effective coming off the bench?
As things stand, it appears the Braves will have one roster spot available for a bench player at the end of camp. That spot could go to Gattis. But it might make more sense to give it to Jordan Schafer or Jose Constanza, a pair of left-handed hitters who would provide speed and the ability to play each of the three outfield positions.
While it would be tempting to have Gattis’ power potential sitting on the bench, the Braves might gain more versatility by filling the final roster spot with Schafer or Constanza. The argument against this would be that Reed Johnson is already available to do this and backup infielder Ramiro Pena could play the outfield in an emergency situation.
Last week, I wrote that it might make more sense to have Gattis begin the year with Triple-A Gwinnett. This would give him a chance to play on an everyday basis and get better acquainted with playing the outfield.
But with some uncertainty about Christian Bethancourt’s ability to replace Brian McCann as Atlanta’s starting catcher next year, it might also make sense to send Gattis to Gwinnett to catch on daily basis at the start of this season. Bethancourt will likely be given a chance to develop his still-questionable offensive skills while beginning this upcoming season with Mississippi.
Graham as a reliever?: Having never seen J.R. Graham pitch before Saturday’s appearance against the Yankees, I was somewhat startled when he circled the mound with Al Hrabosky-like intensity before throwing his first pitch. I’ve sense been told that the highly-regarded pitching prospect was doing this dating back to his days with Rookie Level Danville.
Then with his first pitch Graham lit the radar gun with a 99-mph fastball that was heading toward the screen before Bethancourt reached to grab it. Fueled with adrenaline as he pitched in a big league setting for the first time, Graham hit 98 and 99 with a few more fastballs while walking two in his scoreless debut.
As a starter, Graham has shown the ability to throw in the mid 90s throughout a six or seven-inning appearance. Some of the intrigue surrounding him as a starter is based on the fact that he has been able to maintain his arm strength and throw 96-mph fastballs after the fifth inning.
With this in mind, Graham will continue to serve as a starter when he likely begins this season with Mississippi. But as he continues to develop, the Braves will keep an open mind about the possibility of utilizing him as a reliever in the future. Much of this will likely depend on whether there is a greater need for him to fill a void in Atlanta’s rotation or its bullpen.
Another potential future candidate for Atlanta’s rotation is Alex Wood, the talented University of Georgia product who has opened some eyes during his first two weeks in big league camp. At this time last year, the left-hander was nearing the end of his successful collegiate career. But he did not show any hesitation while tossing a scoreless inning while making his exhibition debut against the Yankees on Saturday.
Wood went 4-3 with a 2.22 ERA in 13 starts with Class A Rome last year. The 22-year-old southpaw with a plus fastball recorded 52 strikeouts and issued 14 walks in 52 2/3 innings.