The 2017 season for the Atlanta Braves has come to a close and now we begin to look forward into 2018 and beyond. This week, we begin a series that looks at each position and the prospects that the organization currently have – starting with a position of great depth in catcher. It wasn’t long ago that the Braves had Cristian Bethancourt and that was about it. Nowadays, that has changed as all five catchers who made this list likely will be in our preseason Top 50 (provided they aren’t traded). In fact, a sixth catcher will likely get included in our Top 50 who wasn’t voted into this Top 5. That’s how deep this position is now.
Later this week, we’ll publish the first base list, which is…well, not quite as deep. Or deep at all.
Here’s how we arrived at our list. – each of the three writers at Walk-Off Walk voted on their Top 5 catchers (plus one extra) and we took the composite rank. Ties are broken by the individual’s highest ranking among the voters. Positions are determined by which position a person played the most at (with a few exceptions).
Also receiving votes: Kade Scivicque.
Top 5 Atlanta Braves Catching Prospects
|Jeff Morris – Follow on Twitter|
1. Alex Jackson
Tommy: With Jackson, the question is less his bat, but it’s still worth starting there because he had the kind of year many expected would be the norm for him after being the sixth overall selection of the 2014 draft by Seattle. He slashed .267/.328/.480 on the year with 19 homeruns while taking his first swings at both High-A and Double-A ball. Now, we can’t NOT mention the 26% strikeout rate with a walk rate about 20% less, but it’s still a solid showing for his Age-21 season. This was also Year 1 of the catching experiment. A backstop in high school, Jackson was converted to the outfield after the Mariners selected him and remained there for the first three years of his career. He wasn’t an asset behind the plate, but he looked more and more comfortable as the season progressed and the Braves gave him more and more time as a catcher. Early returns on his framing were encouraging in that he looks average there. I say that’s encouraging because if your baseline is average, that means you could improve to make framing a solid skill. He’s got the arm for the position, but the footwork and pop-time will need a good deal of work. Keep in mind – this season was about finding out if Jackson could catch at a reasonable level. I think he can do that enough to stay there. He may never be a defensive marvel, but he could be better than Evan Gattis and with his offensive potential, that’s plenty of value. Of course, a switch back to the outfield remains a possibility.
Ryan: I saw some video early in the season of Alex Jackson behind the plate and it was being nice to say he needed work. However, I watched quite of bit of him catching throughout the season and he improved considerably. By season’s end, one could squint and see a catcher in the making. Still, it was barely over a 50 game sample and that’s just not enough to prove/disprove anything. I think he ends up being a catcher at the big league level but it could take 2 more full years for that to happen.
Stephen: So, I’m usually the low man on Jackson’s ability to stay at catcher. I personally asked two scouts while at AA game what his future position would be and both said outfield without hesitation. This lines up with just about everything I’ve read from scouts and evaluators. He’s still young enough where nothing is written in stone but if his bat starts advancing at a higher rate than his glove, the organization is going to have to decide whether a Bryce Harper-like path is optimal for Alex. If putting him in the OF gets him in the lineup quicker, they might make the move. The biggest thing he has to work at the plate is the K rate. Get that under 20% and he’s a major league hitter right now. I’ve got high hopes for Jackson as a hitter and as a LF, I think he’s a major league regular.
|Jeff Morris – Follow on Twitter|
Tommy: The only reason – and I mean the only reason – that Contreras wasn’t my #1 was because he’s still in rookie ball and I think Jackson’s bat is so good that he’s on a path to the majors regardless of position. That said, I may change my mind by the time we reconvene for a preseason Top 50. Contreras is a joy to watch from a defensive standpoint. Such a joy that you almost forget that he hit .290/.379/.432 this season as a 19-year-old in the college-age Appalachian League. The defense, though, is worth the price of admission (well, at least in the minors). He’s smooth behind the plate and athletic. The framing is difficult to judge at this point, but he seems to have a feel for it. Footwork needs improvement, but the arm is a true 70-grade weapon – at least. Frankly, the more I write about him, the more I want to change my vote. If you followed me on Twitter during the Danville Braves’ games I saw this year, you know that my man crush for Contreras grew every time I saw him. In an organization full of exciting prospects, only a select few are more intriguing to me than Contreras.
Ryan: Contreras is the guy that we as Braves fans should be most excited about in terms of a real catcher. He’s got the pedigree (obviously) and every scout out there drools about his athletic ability behind the plate. However, passed balls and blocking balls have been an early problem and that brings nightmares of Christian Bethancourt back into my mind. Hopefully, Contreras will disprove my insecurities this upcoming season and take that step forward that Bethancourt could never seemingly get past. If so, he’s the number #1 catching prospect for the Braves and could be knocking on the door of number #1 in baseball by the end of 2018.
Stephen: The other reason I think Atlanta will be more inclined to move Jackson to the OF is the emergence of Contreras. The reason I ranked him number one on my personal list is one, there’s zero doubt he stays at catcher, and two, his bat is much more than just an afterthought. Everything he does behind the plate is smooth and will only get smoother to go along with a howitzer hanging off his right shoulder. The bat is quick and produces hard contact consistently, putting up wRC+ of 125, 120, and 121 in his first 3 seasons. He’s going to have to hit the ball in the air more to produce more power but the talent is real and tools are there.
|Jeff Morris – Follow on Twitter|
3. Brett Cumberland
Tommy: Cumberland’s season was a study in streaks. As May 17th began, Cumberland was slashing .183/.426/.338 due to 30 BB+HBP in 101 PA. From that date until his promotion to High-A a month later, Cumberland hit .317/.437/.663. A similar story happened after the promotion as he hit .188/.297/.281 in his first 20 games with Florida, but rebounded to hit .314/.430/.407 the rest of the way. All told, Cumberland slashed his way to .266/.409/.445 with Rome and Florida, hitting 27 doubles, 11 home runs, and being hit-by-a-pitch FORTY-ONE times! That’s, well, unusual. As pitchers’ control improves while he progresses through the system, the HBP numbers seem likely to fall. Frankly, for Cumberland’s safety, that might be for the best. Guys in the majors throw hard, Brett. You don’t want to get hit that frequently by the ball. Similar to Jackson, there are a lot of issues behind the plate for Cumberland and I’m less positive about his chances of putting it together well enough to play long-term behind the plate than I am Jackson. He’s smart, works hard, and will give it everything he has, but a move to first base might be inevitable for Cumberland – though I wouldn’t mind being wrong.
Ryan: Short and sweet, in my opinion, Cumberland’s going to have to hit a TON in the Minors to get a shot in the Majors as a catcher (very similar to Gattis). I just don’t see it happening, but like Tommy said, I would love it if it did. He works hard and that is a skillset in itself.
Stephen: I have very little faith Cumberland stays at catcher but the power is real and eventually I think he can be used as a nice piece in a deal with AL club looking for 1B/DH. Like Tommy said, the numbers are artificially inflated by HBP numbers that can’t be counted on as consistent production so he’s going to need to continue to develop at the plate the make up for having very little defensive value.
4. Abrahan Gutierrez
Tommy: Gutierrez may have been a guy that could have benefitted from a year in the Dominican Summer League. Just 17 years-old, he was thrown to the wolves in the Gulf Coast League and faced just one pitcher all season he was older than. Nevertheless, he held his own with a .264/.319/.357 slash over 141 PA with a homer in his final at-bat of the year. Defensively, he might not be Contreras’ equal, but might be a tad more athletic behind the plate and did cut down 38% of potential base stealers. Potential-wise, though I love me some Contreras, Gutierrez still has the highest ceiling of any of these catchers on the list from an overall talent perspective.
Ryan: Can’t say much other than I think the bat improves, especially in the power department. At 17, he’s a big dude (6’2, 214 lbs) and already has a healthy K and BB rate so if the power develops, he’ll be another catching stud.
Stephen: Gutierrez is young and tooled up. Wasn’t a great debut season for him but it wasn’t a disaster either. He’ll get plenty of time to develop his skills and the best thing he has going for him is he’s young and tooled up.
|Jeff Morris – Follow on Twitter|
5. Lucas Herbert
Tommy: I was in the Outfield Fly Rule facebook group during the 2016 draft and after Cumberland was selected, I believe it was Brent Blackwell who stated if you combined Herbert’s defense with Cumberland’s bat, you’d have one of the best catching prospects in baseball. A torn meniscus killed Herbert’s 2015 season almost before it began, but he was still given an aggressive promotion to Rome with only five plate appearances in rookie ball to open 2016. It didn’t go so hot and early returns this season were pretty abysmal as well (.195/.290/.352 over the first nearly 150 PA). He improved after that, hitting .267/.318/.377 after June 4. It’s not going to stand out much on this list, but progression was important for the kid with the questionable bat. Defensively, he has a great arm and is smooth behind the plate. Like all young catchers, the footwork and framing need improvement, but he’s a leader on-and-off the field with a strong work ethic and a desire to improve. I’m not sure if the whole package will ever come together for him, but he could be a sleeper heading into 2018.
Ryan: While Herbert repeating Low-A in 2017 was a setback in itself, his overall slash-line improved as AVG, OBP, and SLG all went up, while his K% went down. Also, it’s worth noting that catchers tend to take longer to develop offensively, so keep an eye on Herbert. If his OPS gets to the .750ish range in 2018, he could move quickly as his defense is top notch.
Stephen: I’m watching Jeff Mathis play in post-season baseball after finishing his 13th season as a major league catcher. I bring this up because Jeff Mathis has a career wRC+ of 50. FIFTY. Point is, if you can get the defensive part of the position, you can have a legitimate career. This is the reason Lucas might have the highest floor among Braves’ catching prospects despite having probably the lowest ceiling. Dude can flat out play defense.
Did you disagree with our ranking? Let us know in the comments.