My favorite moment of the young baseball season is Evan Gattis' two-run shot* off Stephen Strasburg back on April 13. Strasburg threw a neck-high, 96-mph fastball. That's a swing and miss 98 percent of the time. Maybe a foul pop if you're lucky. But Gattis, a barely-known rookie catcher, flicked his bat and parked the pitch in the left-field seats.
*According to the unofficial rules of baseball broadcasting, it's always a "two-run shot" or a "three-run blast." There is no such thing as a "two-run blast."
OK, that's actually my second-favorite moment. My favorite moment of the young baseball season is when Gattis homered off Roy Halladay for his first major-league hit WHILE HIS FATHER WAS BEING INTERVIEWED ON LIVE TV IN THE STANDS.
Gattis is the best story in baseball this year. Let's take a deep breath: He was a hot high-school prospect who signed to play with Texas A&M but dropped out of school; went into rehab for drug and alcohol abuse; spent time in a psych ward for depression; tried to play again, got hurt and dropped out again; went on a four-year walkabout where he worked jobs including janitor, pizza cook and ski-lift operator; gave baseball one more try at the tiny University of Texas-Permian Basin; hit .403; got drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round in 2010; signed for a $1,000 bonus; picked up the name El Oso Blanco (The White Bear) during winter ball in Venezuela; made the big-league roster this year; has seven homers and 19 RBI in 25 games (over 125 games, a normal catcher's load, that projects to 35 homers and 95 RBI); does all this without wearing batting gloves.
But as of Monday, Gattis is the Braves' backup catcher, because six-time All-Star Brian McCann is off the disabled list.
For the Braves, this qualifies as a good problem to have. But it's still a problem. And how the Braves solve it might define their future.
McCann has been the Braves' most solid piece since he became a full-time starter in 2006. He has metronome stats, like Tim Duncan's in basketball, the same almost every year -- 18 to 24 homers, 75 to 90 RBI. He's still fairly young (29). If he's healthy, he's one of the best catchers in baseball.
But toward the end of last season, McCann hurt his shoulder. His batting average dropped to .230 (career: .279) and his OPS+ dipped to 87 (career average: 117). Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez started David Ross over McCann in the Outfield Fly Rule wild-card game against the Cardinals. After the season, McCann had surgery for a torn labrum. Some players heal fully from that injury, and others don't. A catcher with a bad shoulder is an invitation to steal.
The other wildcard with McCann is money. He's in the last year of the 7-year, $41 million deal he signed in 2007. If the Braves don't sign him to an extension, and he has a good year, he'll draw big money as a free agent.
So here's the bind the Braves are in. They have to:
A) Play McCann to see if he's back to his pre-2012 form.
B) Make sure Gattis gets regular at-bats (he started in left field Monday against the Reds, batting in front of McCann and went 1 for 4 with an RBI).
C) Try to figure out if Gattis is stable enough to be a long-term major leaguer.
D) Decide whether to re-sign McCann to a big contract or trade him before he gets away for nothing.
E) If they do keep McCann, decide whether to trade Gattis or try to find another position one or both can play.
This is why GMs get to drive BMWs.
None of this (except the money, of course) comes with any guarantees. Gattis could flame out once the league gets a handle on how to pitch him. McCann's shoulder could hold up until the day after he signs his next contract. They both could fade, and three months from now we'll be wondering why this was a big deal at all.
But what if they both succeed? What if McCann goes back to the guy who got some MVP votes in 2010? What if Gattis keeps hammering the ball and fans start showing up in EL OSO BLANCO jerseys? What if the Braves can't find a way to keep both guys on the field and happy?
Then it becomes the classic vote, Track Record vs. Potential, with injury and rehab thrown in for spice. Good teams have to make this sort of choice all the time. The teams that stay good are the ones that make the right call.