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Atlanta Braves Spring Training Preview: Catchers

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Travis d’Arnaud will pair with Tyler Flowers to give the Braves a new catcher combo for 2020.

2019 ALDS Game 5 - Tampa Bay Rays v. Houston Astros Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves have gotten a lot of mileage out of the catcher position for the last several seasons and they will be hoping that is the case yet again albeit with a new combination of backstops. Tyler Flowers returns for what will be his fifth season with the club but veteran Brian McCann elected to retire following the 2019 season. Atlanta inked Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year deal this offseason to replace McCann. d’Arnaud put up good numbers at the end of 2019 for the Tampa Bay Rays and the Braves will be hoping that he can bring that to the table again in 2020.

Starters

Travis d’Arnaud (2019: 103 G, 391 PA, 16 HR, 8.2 BB%, 21.7 K%, .251/.312/.433, 98 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR)

Perhaps one of the more under-the-radar signings this offseason, the Braves inked Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year deal worth $16 million. D’Arnaud is no stranger to the NL East where he spent the first seven years of his career with the Mets. He appeared in just 10 games for New York last season before he was dealt to the Dodgers. Los Angeles then flipped him after he appeared in just one game to Tampa Bay. d’Arnaud got comfortable with the Rays, matching his career high of 16 home runs while hitting .263/.323/.459 in 92 games.

D’Arnaud’s Statcast data was impressive as well as he posted a career-best in barrels with 21, barrel percentage at 7.7, and average exit velocity at 90.0 MPH, while also featuring a slightly elevated launch angle. The Braves are banking on the idea that the adjustments d’Arnaud has made in recent seasons will carry over for the next two.

Atlanta has recently operated with a near 50-50 split in playing time for the catcher position but we may see that shift slightly with d’Arnaud now on board.

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Tyler Flowers (2019: 85 G, 310 PA, 11 HR, 10.0 BB%, 33.9 K%, .229/.319/.413, 88 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR)

Tyler Flowers has become a mainstay for the Braves at the catcher position. He saw his offensive contributions slip again in 2019 with a slightly worse walk rate and an elevated strikeout rate, but he did produce 11 home runs in 85 games. Flowers overall had a peculiar season for Atlanta. His strikeout rate jumped and some of that was due to his struggles against left-handed pitching. Flowers hit just .155/.273/.274 and struck out 32.3% of the time in 99 plate appearances against lefties last season. He also led the majors in passed balls with 16 with several coming at inopportune times. Flowers found himself on the bench during the postseason as McCann got the start in all five games of the Division Series.

The Braves initially declined Flowers’ $6 million option for 2019 triggering a $2 million buyout and then resigned him to a one-year deal for $4 million in what essentially was some creative accounting. Despite his struggles defensively, he was still among the best pitch framers in the league last season. Flowers came in fourth in Framing Runs over at Baseball Prospectus trailing only Austin Hedges, Yasmani Grandal and Roberto Perez. On a rate basis, only Hedges was better. He was also second in framing runs per Baseball Savant and Fangraphs on a rate basis (again behind Hedges in both).

Now 34 years old, Flowers may see a somewhat reduced role in 2020 with d’Arnaud now on board. His framing skills still bring a ton of value and that shouldn’t be underestimated given Atlanta’s young pitching staff.

Starter Depth

Alex Jackson (2019: Triple-A, 85 G, 345 PA, 28 HR, 5.8 BB%, 34.2 K%, .229/.313/.533, 109 wRC+)

Alex Jackson didn’t have much success in a brief cup of coffee in the majors last season but he showed off impressive power with a strong season at Gwinnett. Jackson launched 28 home runs and slugged .533 in 345 plate appearances. Since shifting back to catcher after he was acquired in a trade from the Mariners, Jackson has shown improvement defensively and appears to be the next man up should either Flowers or d’Arnaud require a stint on the injured list. The power is real, but Jackson has a career minor league on-base percentage of .317 and is carrying a strikeout rate of just under 30 percent. There are definitely some questions as to whether he is anything beyond depth at this point. He reportedly has some intriguing minor league exit velocity data and is said to have improved his framing, which are both points in his favor, but neither of these will matter in securing him playing time if he struggles mightily to make contact in the majors.

Jackson will enter the season slotted behind Flowers and d’Arnaud but with William Contreras already on the 40-man roster and 2019 first round pick Shea Langeliers on the way, he could become a trade option at some point over the next season or two.

The Future

MLB: MAR 05 Spring Training - Braves at Yankees Photo by /Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

William Contreras (2019: Double-A, 60 G, 209 PA, 3 HR, 7.2 BB%, 19.1 K%, .246/.306/.340, 90 wRC+)

Many around the industry thought that the Braves rushed Contreras unnecessarily in 2019, where he split half of the year in High-A and Double-A. That could be used to explain his rather pedestrian offensive performance from last season. From a developmental standpoint, the focus is on his defense, and he is one of the more athletic catching prospects in the minors, while also possessing a strong throwing arm. There is still more development to be done offensively but Contreras has shown flashes of his potential. At this point he just needs more time to settle in.

Shea Langeliers (2019: Low-A, 54 G, 239 PA, 2 HR, 7.1 BB%, 23.0 K%, .255/.310/.343, 92 wRC+)

The Braves nabbed Shea Langeliers with the ninth pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. He was regarded as the best defensive catching prospect in the draft and also showed real power potential in his final season at Baylor. Atlanta placed him at Low-A Rome where he threw out 41 percent of all basestealers. His defense will be his carrying card and he is already an accomplished pitch framer. He started slowly at the plate at Rome but finished strong and it will be interesting to see how he performs in Spring Training.

Others in camp

Carlos Martinez (2019: Double-A, 63 G, 207 PA, 2 HR, 5.8 BB%, 15.9 K%, .198/.268/.251, 55 wRC+)

Carlos Martinez will turn 25 in May. He has spent the last two seasons at Double-A where he struggled offensively. He’s mostly just there to serve as Spring Training depth and not overwork the other catchers too much.

Jonathan Morales (2019: Triple-A, 34 G, 132 PA, 2 HR, 7.6 BB%, 18.9 K%, .289/.341/.380, 87 wRC+)

Jonathan Morales has served as catcher depth between Double-A and Triple-A over the last two seasons for the Braves. He hit .289/.341/.380 at Gwinnett in 2019 but at this point there seems little chance of him ever cracking the 40-man roster. With good defense and flashes of offensive potential a few years ago, Morales cracked some top prospect lists and seemed like a potential major league backup. His offense has completely stalled since, however, and he’s quickly fallen off those same lists.