|Tyler Flowers (By Editosaurus (Own work) [CC0], |
via Wikimedia Commons)
For so many years, the Braves were absolutely loaded at catcher. Javy Lopez arrived in 1994 and for a dozen years, he was one of the best catchers in baseball. After a brief intermission where Johnny Estrada looked alright, the Braves handed the reigns over to Brian McCann for nine years. Behind the plate, the Braves made other teams green with envy as they tried desperately to find a franchise cornerstone.
It has been another story since McCann’s defection to the Bronx after the 2013 season. The Braves handed the job to Evan Gattis, but after a year, Atlanta was ready to move on to a more defensively capable backstop. They went with Christian Bethancourt, but the latter’s issues at the plate and work ethic quickly put him in the dog house. Fortunately, A.J. Pierzynski found the fountain of youth to provide some stability at catcher in 2015 after Bethancourt fell on his face. Last year, Atlanta moved on from Bethancourt and added Tyler Flowers. While Pierzynski would stumble, Flowers had his best offensive year. To do so, he apparently sold his soul to do more at the plate because he couldn’t throw out anyone trying to steal on Braves’ pitchers.
As we pivot toward 2017, the Braves are hopeful to improve this position, but will need to go outside the organization to do so – and even if they do, there’s no guarantee they actually will improve.
Before we get there, let’s take a look at the farm. The Braves do have some prospects behind the plate and they ought to after using early-round picks on Lucas Herbert and Brett Cumberland the last two years. That doesn’t include Jonathan Morales, who was picked nearly 700 picks after Herbert in 2015, and displayed some timely hitting and better-than-advertised defense at times in 2016. Atlanta also acquired Kade Scivicque last season in the Erick Aybar trade and the former 2015 fourth rounder is the closest to the majors. Unfortunately, he’s only played three games at Double-A to this point and carries his fair share of questions.
More over, none of the four catchers I just mentioned are better than a C+ grade prospect at this point. Each have potential to be a starter behind the plate in the majors, but none seem too close to realizing that.
So, what do the Braves do? Well, like I said, they do have Flowers for at least another year (plus an affordable option for 2018). They also have a pair of journeyman options on the 40-man roster in Anthony Recker and Tuffy Gosewisch. I touched on Recker during my Player Reviews section. Suffice it to say, I have considerable doubts that he’ll slash .278/.394/.433 again. Gosewisch was recently picked off waivers and has a career .199/.237/.286 slash with some average pitch-framing metrics. Recker and Gosewisch are a worst case scenario – what the Braves would be left with if they don’t add a better option.
But does that option exist on the free agent market and do they reasonably fit into the picture for the Braves? The market is pretty bare, but there are a few names that could be a possibility.
Possibly the most desired catcher on the market, Castro has a half-dozen teams after him and the Braves appear to be one of the most interested. The amount of interest says more about how little is available than it does about Castro’s playing ability. Outside of one big season in 2013, you aren’t getting much offense. His triple slash over the last three years is a paltry .215/.291/.369. It should be said that, as a left-handed hitter, Castro does have traditional splits that can be navigated with the right-hand hitting Flowers. Against lefties over the last three years, Castro has a .197/.252/.291 split. While his marks against righties aren’t be too exciting (.221/.305/.398), we are talking about a difference in wOBA of 65 points. Also, while we are talking about possible highlights of Castro’s game, his defense is outstanding. During the same time frame I just brought up, Castro has the 19th best catcher fWAR almost entirely due to his defense. He also calls a great game and “steals” strikes (catcher RAA of 9, 12.9, 12.8 last three years). That last number ranked fifth last year – right behind Flowers.
There is an issue, however. Remember those handful of teams also chasing Castro? That has a tendency to inflate his salary. How much do you want to pay a guy with a three-year fWAR of 4.2? If you want a reference, Flowers had a three-year fWAR of 2.0 when he hit free agency last winter and the Braves promised at least $5.3M over two years with additional incentives and an option year that could increase the value of the deal (without incentives) to $9M. I’d like to tell you that you could simply double that and promise a third year (3 years, $18M), but that seems difficult to imagine. MLB Trade Rumors predicted, while heading to the White Sox, that Castro would get 2 years, $15M. Let’s say the market demands that Castro receive at least 3 years and $22M. Is that too much? How about $28M? Where do the Braves put a cut-off line where adding Castro no longer makes financial sense, even if he does provide considerable value? Castro and Flowers are a fine tandem of catchers who both had a 1.1 fWAR last year. If you put the two together, you get a Salvador Perez (2.2 fWAR) from this year. That’s not too shabby provided the price is right.
He’s a veteran of 746 major league games and I still want to call him Todd. Because Nick’s offensive numbers improved a good deal once he came to Coors Field, you might be tempted to pass Hundley off as a product of location and there is some validity to that, but he actually sported better numbers on the road than at home last year (110 wRC+ compared to 55).
A bigger question for me is how Hundley makes sense. Another right-handed catcher, Hundley has a better track record at the plate than Flowers, but not enough to be significantly more valuable. Further, his pitch framing metrics are poor and he only caught 9-of-68 people trying to steal last year. Hundley received $6.2M over two years to head to Denver. Seems unlikely he’ll receive less to come to Atlanta and that’s a hefty price for a guy who probably shouldn’t play over Flowers.
Need a one year option? Consider Iannetta. His game has fallen off the cliff over the last two years, he’ll be 34 a week into the season next year, he doesn’t have good pitch framing metrics, is a right-handed batter, and…
Actually, you know what. Best not to consider Iannetta too much at this point. He does have good walk numbers and is just two years removed from a .252/.373/.392 slash with a 3 fWAR. Of course, at his age, two years ago for a catcher could be a big deal.
Few options are as boom or bust as Ramos. He was in the midst of a breakout season for the nationals before tearing his ACL. It was his first plus year offensively and was worth slightly more fWAR than the previous three years combined. Before we consider the injury, can he repeat that success? While a 21.4 HR/FB is suspect, Ramos has always carried some high HR/FB numbers as a product of a very high groundball rate. One thing that he did more of last year was to pull the ball more and hit it harder – two very repeatable things. He also showed maturity as a hitter and swung less at pitches out of the zone (along with swinging less in general). This made him less likely to swing himself into bad counts. It should also be said that while Ramos was a rookie back in 2011, he lost significant parts of the next three years due to injury so his development was delayed.
But that’s the thing. Last year was the second time in his career that he reached 500 PA. This is actually an issue that has plagued him going back to his minor league days. Can the Braves really go all in on a guy who, while the youngest option on the market, might also be the riskiest? He might be able to play by early summer so that’s a plus and while not a gifted pitch framer, he’s adequate and if he repeats his offense, his pitch framing numbers aren’t quite as important. Personally, I would pass unless his demands came down and he was willing to agree to a contract that protected the team from getting burned by future occurrences of injuries.
Desperate for an option and unwilling to spend big money? Consider Rosario, who hit .321/.367/.593 in Korea last year. Of course, Korea is like a video game on steroids as far as offensive numbers go. There is another issue – he might not be a catcher anymore and might demand a major league deal to leave Asia, where his power is a big deal.
Worth a shot, right? No bad one-year deals, right?
Actually, no. If he was a plus defensively, sure, but he’s not really that either. Salty has just one season of a 2 or better fWAR and that was in 2013. He hasn’t rated positively in pitch framing since 2012. Historically, Saltalamacchia resembles a league average bar against righties, which could make him a platoon option. However, his three-year sample shows a disappearance of a platoon split. At this point, Salty is unlikely to be better than Recker or Gosewisch – just more expensive.
Okay, so we all know this story by now. After starring at Georgia Tech, Wieters was the fifth overall pick of the 2007 draft and destined for big things. He was well on his way, though his bat never really looked like much more than league average when injuries wiped out most of his 2014 and 2015 seasons. He returned for 124 games last year and slashed .243/.302/.409. His defense remains a mixed bag. While still good, it’s no longer elite and his pitch framing, which was never great, has been below average since 2013.
Unlike last year, the Orioles passed on extending Wieters a qualifying offer, which makes his pathway to Atlanta a little easier to see. MLB Trade Rumors even predicted that Wieters would land with the Braves at an average annual value of $13M a season over three years. Are the Braves that interested? According to Mark Bowman, probably not, but you have to imagine that if Castro’s asking price gets too high or he signs elsewhere, they will re-evaluate their position with the remaining top free agent catchers. I find Wieters to be fairly underwhelming, but if his price tag falls, I could be interested.
That’s the free agent market – such as it is. Of course, there is also a trade market that could be tempting to try out.
Oakland’s Stephen Vogt will likely be discussed and he definitely is an interesting option after finishing off a three-year run where he posted a 5.5 fWAR for the A’s. The two-time All-Star is arbitration-eligible for the first time and just turned 32. The Braves could call Arizona about Welington Castillo or Chicago about Miguel Montero, though each would be in their walk year and in Montero’s case, $14M is a hefty price for a 33 year-old catcher who hit .216/.327/.357 last year.
There are no real great choices. You can stand pat and hope that Flowers, who posted a wOBA 35 points higher than his career average, was a late bloomer. You can try to catch lightening in a bottle with a one year pact or trade for a 2017 free agent like Montero. You can spend possibly too much money on a multi-year deal for a catcher with clear flaws that are unlikely to go away.
If it were me, Castro would be the only real target (short of the A’s selling Vogt short). If Castro gets too expensive, I would stay in contact with Wieters and Ramos and hope that a shallow market brings their price tag down. Either way, it might be best to get used to the idea that Tyler Flowers has a good shot of starting behind the plate when the Braves open the 2017 season in Flushing on April 3.