There are 39 days remaining before pitchers and catchers report to Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex. Today kicks off the first of a series of articles reviewing the Atlanta Braves by positional grouping: Catcher, Starting Pitcher, Relief Pitcher, Infield, and Outfield.
The first installment of Braves Preview focuses on the Catcher position.
Tyler Flowers (2018 – .227/.341/.359 8 HR)
Tyler Flowers has been, for the most part, a productive player for the Braves since being signed in 2016 to back up A.J. Pierzynski. In his first two seasons he batted .276/.368/.433 with an OPS of .801 while hitting a total of 20 HR, all while basically splitting the catching duties with A.J. first, and later, Kurt Suzuki. Last season his numbers tailed off considerably. He still managed 8 HR but the rest of his numbers regressed to levels he showed back in Chicago for the White Sox.
Granted, it was not a healthy year for Flowers. In the very first game of the season, Tyler took a big swing and came up lame, hitting the DL with an oblique injury. Obliques tend to linger even when given ample time to heal before being reactivated, and after almost 30 days on the 10 day DL Flowers was finally deemed ready to step back in to the batter’s box. Whether or not that injury affected his overall season and approach at the plate is unclear, but what is clear is that he struggled mightily against right handed pitchers this season and absolutely demolished southpaws. Here are his splits:
RHP – 185 AB, .184/.269/.270, OPS .540, 3 HR, 57 K, 15 BB
LHP – 66 AB, .348/.511/.606, OPS 1.117, 5 HR, 19 K, 20 BB
Defensively Tyler Flowers is still a novelty. While he struggles to manage the running game of opposing teams, the Braves still seem far more interested in his pitch framing abilities. His ability to steal strikes for the young pitching staff could be critical in their continued success at the big league level, and apparently it’s worth the trade-off of a suspect arm.
Brian McCann (2018 – .212/.290/.361 7 HR)
Back in November the Braves announced a reunion with Brian McCann on a one year, $2M contract. McCann had been keeping tabs on Atlanta since he left to pursue the almighty dollar in Yankee pinstripes, and after winning a World Series ring with the Astros in 2017 and an injury-plagued season in 2018, B-Mac is hoping this reunion can be a fitting end to a nice career.
McCann has always been known for his bat, having hit 20 or more HR in 11 of his 14 big league seasons, earning 6 Silver Slugger awards and being named an All Star 7 times. The Braves are taking a low-risk bet on McCann being healthy for 2019 and helping offset the poor numbers versus RHP from Tyler Flowers. Prior to last season, McCann had solid numbers against RHP, batting .246/.323/.444 with 13 HR in 252 AB. If he can stay healthy and avoid the knee issues that led to arthroscopic surgery and limited him to only 63 games in 2018, McCann could find himself the big part of a platoon with Flowers.
The other benefit to having McCann on the Atlanta roster is his leadership in the clubhouse. With Nick Markakis (hopefully) departing via free agency, B-Mac will step back into that familiar role of team leader and enforcer that endeared him to fans and teammates alike in his first stint in Atlanta. He also brings an advanced understanding of pitch sequencing and functions as an additional coach on the field. His impact will be felt even in games he doesn’t start, helping Flowers and the pitching staff prepare to attack opposing lineups.
Raffy Lopez (2018 – .176/.265/.284 3 HR)
Most Braves fans wouldn’t know who Raffy Lopez is if it wasn’t for the incident back in June of last season that resulted in Kurt Suzuki exiting the game with a head injury, catching the back-swing of Lopez right in the back of the head. That in itself is unremarkable, but the fact that Lopez never even checked on Suzuki after almost knocking him out cold caught the ire of Braves broadcasters and fans alike. Lopez did check on him after the game, however, so there is likely little ill-will towards him in the Braves clubhouse now, especially now that Suzuki plays for the Washington Nationals.
If Lopez appears on the active roster for the Braves prior to September, things have gone horribly wrong for McCann or Flowers. The 30 year old catcher is the quintessential back-up to the back-up, having exceeded 100 AB for the first time in his career last season for the Padres. He flashes a little power, but if you are turning to him for significant innings behind the plate, don’t expect much production offensively.
Alex Jackson – AAA Gwinnett – .201/286/.360 8 HR 120 K
The Braves swung a deal for Alex Jackson with the Mariners and promptly re-introduced him to the “tools of ignorance,” sticking him back behind the plate where he belongs. Jackson had not taken to the outfield very well in Seattle, and the Braves were in need of some catching depth. Initially this looked like a great move as Jackson began the season with the Fire Frogs and belted 14 HR in 66 games before being advanced to the M-Braves to finish out the 2017 season. He started out predictably rough behind the plate, but reports are that he has become serviceable as a catcher. Unfortunately 2018 saw a steep decline in his offensive production, which is terrible timing considering the new President of Baseball Operations was taking 2018 to evaluate the farm system before deciding what deals had to be made. Jackson did not make a good first impression, and reports out of the Braves camp are that Alex Jackson is no longer being considered as a prospect but more as organizational depth.
William Contreras – High A Florida – .285/.347/.436 11 HR
Alex Anthopoulos has been reluctant to name any Braves prospect as “untouchable,” but William Contreras is as close to untouchable as it gets. Younger brother of Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras, William checks all the boxes for a solid catching prospect: he hits for average, hits for power, athletic behind the plate with a solid MLB caliber arm. It’s too soon to tell if he will be a middle of the order bat at the major league level, but the tools he has shown to this point give the Braves hope that he can ascend to catcher-in-waiting status and be a big part of their plans in 2021 and beyond.
Drew Lugbauer – Low A Rome – .232/.317/.374 12 HR
In his second season with the Braves organization since being drafted out of college in 2017, Drew Lugbauer has kept true to his commitment to put 100% of his work into trying to become a capable MLB catching prospect. In 2018 for Rome he played 553 2/3 innings in the field, and all but one were spent behind the dish. In those 550+ innings he allowed 14 passed balls and caught 28 out of 84 attempted base stealers. The power is real for the young man known affectionately as “Slugbauer,” and the hope is that his left-handed swing might eventually pair well with that of the right-handed Contreras.
Jonathan Morales – AA Mississippi – .265/.326/.340 2 HR
Morales appears to be organizational depth, but he is talented enough defensively and provides just enough offense to be a legitimate contender for a backup role in the intervening time between the end of McCann’s contract and the arrival of Contreras.
Lucas Herbert – High A Florida – .202/.255/.311 5 HR
Once a Top 30 prospect for the Braves, Herbert has fallen into the ranks of “organizational depth” for the Braves. Drafted in 2015, Herbert was the high school battery mate of Kolby Allard, and his calling card is his defense behind the plate. There is doubt whether his bat will ever be MLB caliber, but his defensive ability may be enough to get him a few games in a backup role at the big league level.
There you have it, the Braves current catching situation entering the 2019 Spring Training. Next week we will look at the Starting Pitching grouping with hopes that we have a new name to add to the list.
Guest Writer: Andy Simms
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