Yesterday, we began a series looking at the best prospects by position starting with catcher, but I’d be remiss if we didn’t also look at where the Braves stand at catcher right now. After all, just because a position is a strength in the minors doesn’t need help right now. Conversely, a position like first base looks pretty weak in the minors, but the Braves aren’t that interested in addressing that because of who they have in the majors.
This series of articles will look at both the recent past – especially 2017 – and the foreseeable future. It will take into account the current major league roster, the current depth in the minors, and the future of the position. Think of this series as a way to look at the strengths and weaknesses of a roster before attempting to fix problems moving forward. I will use some of the information I already released about the current roster makeup as a reminder.
Signed: Kurt Suzuki ($3.5M)
Renewal: David Freitas and Tony Sanchez
Option: Tyler Flowers ($4M, $300K buyout)
Current Projection: $7.5M
On a roster in flux, there is some degree of stability behind the plate. Tyler Flowers will almost certainly be brought back for 2018 and once again will be paired with Kurt Suzuki. We will get to the details on how effective this duo was in 2017, but it’s very important to remember that the price per value here is exceptionally high. The Braves are essentially paying the price for a medium-grade starter for two catchers who are capable of being starters in the majors. However, both are probably better for the time share they played under last season. Catchers are naturally prone to breaking down as the season progresses, but the Braves avoided that by having their duo share the load.
The other 40-man options right now are unlikely to be in the mix by opening day. Freitas is Triple-A filler while Sanchez, more known for his defense, didn’t even catch an inning after being acquired at the waiver-trade deadline.
Comparison – The Majors
The duo of Flowers and Suzuki lack the name recognition and neither will be All-Stars in 2018, but for one year, they gave the Braves the best production from behind the plate in the league. Only four teams received at least 4 WAR from their catchers in 2017 and only the Braves pushed over the 5 WAR cliff – finishing with 5.1 fWAR to be exact. They were tied for fourth in homers, third in ISO, first in wOBA, and first in wRC+. Defensively, they were slightly below-average – largely because Flowers gives up defensive value for framing – something he’s the best at in baseball.
Because the Braves can keep both Flowers and Suzuki moving forward, the position looks to have zero upheaval heading into 2018. It might be a pipe dream to expect the Braves to get another 5-win season from their catchers – it was shocking that it happened once – but both Flowers and Suzuki credit Kevin Seitzer for their improvements at the plate and the Braves certainly could bring back Seitzer for another season. That would keep a good team together for another year, though the Braves are rumored to look at some considerable alterations to their coaching staff despite bringing back Brian Snitker.
Regardless, the Braves should rank among the top 10 or so teams heading into 2018 behind the plate even if individually, both of their catchers are ranked much lower. The Cubs, Dodgers, Giants, Yankees, Marlins, and possibly the Mariners should all rank ahead of them on the strength of their number one catcher. The Orioles and Tigers, a combined 7.2 fWAR between them, will be tasked with rebuilding their catching situation. Welington Castillo could return to the Orioles, but after a big year, he’ll likely seek out a long-term deal rather than come back on a player’s option while the Tigers already dealt Alex Avila last season.
Obviously, there are a lot of dominoes that will fall this offseason, but the fact the Braves have two respectable catchers who put up the kind of numbers that they did in 2017 makes this position a strength heading into 2018 compared to the rest of the league.
Comparison – Immediate Depth
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea – this is simply what kind of depth is already projected to be in the minors who could be on the major league roster when the season opens next year. The Braves have a lot of catching prospects – and I’ll get back to them – but their best prospects are not likely going to be in the mix next April. However, the Braves do have Kade Scivicque and that isn’t the worst thing in the world. Scivicque missed our Top 5, but is probably a Top 50 prospect in this loaded system so don’t sleep on him. He doesn’t project as much more than a backup in the majors, but is smart and capable behind the plate. He has some gap power and while aggressive at the plate, will make enough solid contact to possibly post a good average if the BABIP allow it.
The Braves could bring back Freitas or Sanchez for more depth and they also have Sal Giardina and Joseph Odom, who both appeared in Gwinnett last year. Neither, however, project as much more than organizational filler and the Braves don’t need Freitas or the rarely utilized Sanchez. Beyond them, you have last year’s Double-A duo of Jonathan Morales and Alex Jackson. Morales is a lot like Giardina and Odom, but Jackson is a legit prospect if he can stay behind the plate. Actually, with his bat, he’s a legit prospect anywhere, but he brings more value as a catcher. Reports were mixed about Jackson, but he did appear to look much more comfortable as the season progressed after moving from the outfield. If he continues to respond to coaching, Jackson could be knocking on the door sometime next summer. Despite not being in the mix when the season opens, Jackson is still slated to open 2018 in Gwinnett if only because that’s where the at-bats because there’s so much depth behind him. Even if an injury opened a spot in the bigs, I think Scivicque is ahead of Jackson for the time being, but at some point in 2018, that’s going to change.
I’d classify the immediate depth as average, but trending up.
Comparison – The Future
The Braves might not have any of their catchers make one of the big Top 100 Prospects list this winter, but the depth here is off-the-charts. I already mentioned Jackson, and he received the most points for our top catching prospect in our recent list. The great thing about the catching depth is that it’s spread out pretty well. Here’s a brief projection with the Top 5 catching prospects and others that likely will be in the mix.
Gwinnett: Alex Jackson (#1), Kade Scivicque (Honorable mention), Joseph Odom.
Mississippi: Brett Cumberland (#3), Jonathan Morales, Sal Giardina
Florida: Lucas Herbert (#5), Carlos Martinez, Tanner Murphy
Rome: William Contreras (#2), Hagen Owenby
Danville: Abrahan Gutierrez (#4), Alan Crowley, Zack Soria
Not too shabby. The best combinations of offense/defense of the group are likely 2-3 years away in Contreras and Gutierrez, but there’s a pair of good offensive talents in Herbert and Cumberland with a lottery ticket in Herbert mixed in whose bat could develop well enough to increase his prospect standing. This list does not include Drew Lugbauer, who was classified as a first basemen due to where he played the most. Still, Lugbauer gives the Braves another possibility even if it’s as a part-time catcher/corner infielder coming off the bench.
No matter how you slice it, the future is a major strength for the Braves and likely one of the best catching prospect situations in baseball – if not the best.
The Big Picture
When it comes to the catcher position, there are few teams in a better position than the Braves. Sure, the chances of the Braves having the best production in baseball from their catchers in 2018 is not high, but there’s also a strong chance that both Flowers and Suzuki perform well enough to lead the Braves to a solid season from behind the plate. The coming attractions, though, is where the Braves turn the catcher position into something special. It’s hard not to think the Braves should be good behind the plate for the next decade.