Braves catcher Evan Gattis, right, could possibly be moved to left field if Atlanta promotes prospect Christian Bethancourt — a move that Atlanta has considered during its frustrating offensive stretch. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — No one who works for the Atlanta Braves is crazy about the way they’re playing, although Tuesday arrived with them atop the National League East. The feeling within the organization is that the status quo won’t be enough.
“I learned this from Tony (La Russa),” hitting coach Greg Walker said. “Assuming you’re a talented team, the most important things during a season are injuries, which you can’t control, and making adjustments. We have to make adjustments. We can’t keep playing this way and expect to get to the promised land.”
The Braves are on pace to win 86 games. In the two seasons since the playoffs expanded to 10, no team has qualified with fewer than 88 wins. Thus the question: How does a pretty good team get better?
The easiest way would be for Walker’s hitters to hit more. Beyond that, there aren’t any obvious moves. They’ve already promoted Tommy La Stella, and the Angels aren’t apt to bite on an Uggla-for-Trout trade. What’s left?
Mark Bowman, who covers the Braves for MLB.com, reported Sunday that the team has “at least started toying with the idea of moving Evan Gattis to left field.” For this to happen, Bowman wrote, the Braves would have to promote Christian Bethancourt and install him at catcher; they’d also have to nudge Jason Heyward from right field to center and Justin Upton from left to right. Which would dispatch B.J. Upton to the bench.
Bowman wrote that such a move “does not necessarily seem imminent,” which makes sense. It would take a lot for any team — especially a first-place team — to change half its everyday positions 2 1/2 months into a season. Still, the Braves did deploy a Gattis-Heyward-J. Upton outfield in the NLDS last October, and the array didn’t exactly dazzle. Game 1 saw balls fall in left, center and right that might have been gloved by defenders more accustomed to their positions.
The obvious benefits of a four-pronged switch would be a defensive upgrade at catcher — Gattis is merely adequate; Bethancourt is rated as outstanding — and the banishment of B.J. Upton, who entered Tuesday’s game hitting .209 and who committed two errors over the weekend. But would two presumed pluses justify four positional relocations? Common sense says no. Here’s why:
1. Promoting Bethancourt could prove an exchange of weak bats. He’s hitting .274 at Gwinnett with three home runs. He has eight walks against 35 strikeouts. His on-base percentage is .301. (To be fair, that’s better than B.J. Upton’s .284.) The belief in spring training was that Bethancourt wasn’t ready to hit in the majors. His average in April was .203. He has done better since — .271 in May, .375 in June — but Gattis has been the Braves’ best hitter over the past month. Does a team that has struggled to score dare transplant its hottest bat?
2. The Braves are an average defensive team even with the best shortstop and the best right fielder in the game. Heyward has proved he’s capable of playing center, but he’s not the best center fielder in the majors. To move him is to weaken the Braves at all three outfield spots. Would the benefit of having Bethancourt catch be so pronounced as to override the lessening of three other positions?
3. To bench Upton would reduce the Braves to a 23.5-man roster. If they won’t pay Dan Uggla $20 million to go away, what makes us think they’d hand Upton $54 million to hit the bricks? (Neither has any trade value.) Upton might be of limited use to pinch-run or play late-inning defense — no manager of sound mind could leave Gattis in left field with an eighth-inning lead — but that’s about it. And now you’re asking: If Upton is so limited, why play him at all?
4. Because having two of the team’s three highest-salaried position players being paid to do next to nothing would render the clubhouse a most unusual place. We like to think that players don’t allow feelings to affect performance, but that’s not always so. Some who follow the Braves believe Freddie Freeman’s slump was tied to the benching of his buddy Uggla.
Re-aligning an entire outfield isn’t a move to be made in June by a division leader. Should the Braves get swept by the Nationals this weekend, it might make more sense. As it stands, risk trumps reward.