COMMENTARY | Wally Pipp infamously lost his starting job after sitting out one game in 1925 with a headache. The New York Yankees started a young guy named Henry Louis Gehrig in his place, and 2,130 games later, Pipp's last name would forever be transformed into a verb. Is Atlanta Braves' catcher Brian McCann the latest big leaguer in danger of getting "Pipp'd?"
When Evan Gattis first envisioned clawing and scratching his way onto the Braves' roster this spring, he probably never even consider the possibility that, not only would he make the team, but he would become the starting catcher and cleanup hitter inside of a week.
Yet, that is exactly where the 26-year-old rookie suddenly finds himself. On a team that includes Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward, manager Fredi Gonzalez elected to pencil the unproven Gattis into the four-hole of the Atlanta lineup.
With Freddie Freeman, the Braves normal cleanup hitter, currently on the shelf with an oblique injury, Gattis has responded in a big way, He has started the 2013 season hitting .368 with two home runs and three RBIs through the first eight games of Atlanta's schedule.
Now the question has to be asked as to what exactly the plans are when six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann returns from the disabled listed later this month. How can Gattis go from being a middle-of-the-order guy on the team with the best record in baseball, to suddenly sitting on the bench or even potentially having to thumb it back down to the minors?
Of course, all of this talk may be premature. Brian McCann is not even going to start playing games until April 16 at the earliest, which could still turn into extended minor league rehab assignments rather than a straight-to-the-bigs activation from the DL. No one yet knows how his surgically-repaired shoulder is going to hold up over the course of a long season. Plus, with year-round interleague play, there will be opportunities to use Mac in the DH role.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez could choose to carry three catchers and hold onto Gattis as the fifth backup outfielder; however, this would require them to move someone else. Jordan Schafer does not have any more club options to go back to the minors, so moving him would likely mean losing him. Veteran Reed Johnson seems far too valuable as a late-inning pinch-hitter and utility outfielder to let go at this point either. Moving veteran backup catcher Gerald Laird may be the easiest way in which the Braves can keep Gattis on the roster, but how comfortable is Gonzalez moving on without a reliable veteran behind the plate?
While too much talent is always a nice problem to have, McCann and Gattis may soon find themselves pitted against one another in a classic love triangle for the affections of the starting catcher's spot. Could a position change be the solution to keep both of their bats in the Atlanta lineup?
First base is the natural move for catchers, as the Minnesota Twins have occasionally found with Joe Mauer and the San Francisco Giants have also tried with Buster Posey. However, in Atlanta, Freddie Freeman is already firmly entrenched at that position. In fact, the only position anywhere on the diamond which does not currently have a veteran mainstay would be third base.
Currently, Atlanta uses the platoon combination of Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco. The combination is hitting .262 through eight games this season, so neither one would seem to hold too much resistance to a potential McCann or Gattis position overthrow. However, changing positions in the middle of the season is never an easy proposition, and neither player has any prior experience at the hot corner.
McCann has never played a position other than catcher at any point in his major or minor league career. Gattis has played some first base and left field in the minors, so shifting him to third may be a smoother transition, but that would leave McCann to do all of the catcher -- something that will not improve his career's longevity.
Moving forward from this season, Brian McCann's future as an Atlanta Braves' player has to be called into question. McCann is currently in the final year of a contract that will pay him $12 million for 2013. Despite hitting just .230 during an injury-plagued 2012 campaign, McCann is still looked at as one of the better catchers in the game. There will certainly be a strong market for McCann in free agency, but do the Braves risk overpaying for a player with lingering question marks for a position in which they suddenly have found a young star in the making?
McCann is a Georgia native who has played his entire MLB career with Atlanta. He could choose to give the Braves a home-town discount to keep suiting up for the Bravos. To make that happen, a position change would still seem to be very necessary. If Gattis is the eventual long-term option for the Braves behind the dish, then where would McCann fit in? It is probably best not to think about it too much and just relish the World Series potential of this season, because it could be McCann's last in Atlanta.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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