Three Cuts: Will Flowers-Suzuki combo offer Braves consistency at catcher?
The blockbuster move never arrived.
With catching help near the top of the Atlanta Braves’ front office agenda heading into the offseason, reports persistently linked the franchise to top names like Wilson Ramos and Matt Wieters well before Kris Bryant recorded the final out of the World Series. But for various reasons — injuries, money, contract length — general manager John Coppolella and president of baseball operations John Hart focused on short-term solutions.
The team made two offseason moves relevant to its 25-man roster: picking up Tuffy Gosewisch off waivers for organizational depth and adding veteran Kurt Suzuki to push incumbent starter Tyler Flowers for playing time. The question now revolves around whether they upgraded the position — and just how necessary those upgrades will be in 2017.
Will there be carryover from a strong second half with a revamped pitching staff as the team heads to Cobb County?
Denny MedleyDenny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Can Braves catchers replicate second-half offensive surge?
The story of Atlanta’s 2016 season behind the plate can be easily summarized: The front office’s faith in A.J. Pierzynski building upon his resurgent age-38 season was misguided, but the low-cost addition of Tyler Flowers proved to be a sound investment.
As a follow-up to one of the best seasons of his long career, Pierzynski stumbled early and often. He hit just .205/.227/.250 in 56 games in the first half before seeing his playing time evaporate by mid-August, only partly due to injury. As the team turned the keys over to Flowers and his backup, Anthony Recker, for the stretch run, the unit’s numbers took a dramatic leap. In the second half, Braves catchers ranked in the top half of baseball in wins above replacement, on-base percentage and weighted runs created plus.
The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle for Flowers.
The 31-year-old right-handed bat hit at a career-best rate, bolstered by a significantly elevated BABIP, last season in nearly every category. His on-base percentage was nearly 50 points higher than his previous top mark as he hit .270/.357/.420 with eight home runs in 325 plate appearances. A step back from those heights would be natural.
Suzuki’s addition will not likely jumpstart an improving offense — the 33-year-old hit above league average just once in his 10-year run with Oakland, Washington and Minnesota — but assuming he supplants Recker on the Braves’ 25-man roster after signing a $1.5 million deal with incentives, Atlanta should be trotting out an experienced option each and every night. Flowers and Suzuki, both righty bats, do not form a true platoon, but neither did the Flowers-Recker combination.
Jonathan Lucroy or Buster Posey are not walking through the door, but finishing in the top half of the league offensively is an attainable goal.
Brad MillsBrad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
After baserunners stole at will last season, how persistent will the defensive issues prove to be?
As the offense rounded into form for Atlanta’s catchers, the defensive issues were persistent as ever. The unit finished 27th in the majors in defensive runs saved, costing the team 37 runs as they were plagued by errors, passed balls and opposing baserunners.
It was a 180-degree flip in production for Tyler Flowers, who was expected to be a defense-first catcher after his lauded work with the White Sox staff in Chicago. In every full MLB season prior to Atlanta, Flowers had hit sub-league average (per weighted runs created plus) and owned a positive defensive WAR. His work behind the plate, as opposed to in the batter’s box, was the primary driver of his career value.
His 2016 season, statistically, turned out to be the exact opposite. While his pitch-framing remains a valuable commodity (4th-best in majors), opponents successfully stole bases on 60 of their 63 attempts. Of the seven other catchers that allowed 60-plus stolen bases last season, no other player caught fewer than 11 potential base-stealers.
Suzuki, for his part, fared better in this regard. Though he cost the Minnesota Twins seven defensive runs overall, he threw out 12 of the 64 potential base-stealers he faced and only allowed one passed ball in 797 innings. (For the record, Suzuki has not graded out as a good pitch-framer since 2008.)
At the end of the day, it was arguably the worst defensive seasons on record for either catcher. Improvement, however marginal, can be expected from the two veterans.
Rick OsentoskiRick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
What does the future look like behind the plate?
In the post-Christian Bethancourt Era, the Braves were left without a viable catching prospect near the top level. Coppolella identified the position as the organization’s biggest need for a reason: Atlanta’s future behind the plate was a major question mark.
The franchise’s recent moves highlight an internal priority. It spent high draft picks in back-to-back years on prep talent Lucas Herbert and Cal standout Brett Cumberland. Through the trade market, Coppolella and Hart have landed intriguing prospects in LSU product Kade Scivicque and former Padres international signee Ricardo Rodriguez as well as former top-10 overall pick Alex Jackson, who could make the permanent transition back to his high-school position. The 2016 international market yielded the top catcher available in $3.5 million teenager Abrahan Gutierrez.
The highest level any of those players have reached is Double-A Mississippi — and even then Scivicque, perhaps the lowest-regarded prospect of the group, logged just 11 plate appearances there last season.
The farm system situation has undoubtedly informed the decision-making at the major-league level. Short of signing a definitive (and expensive) long-term answer at catcher, the Braves have opted for team-friendly, short-term options at the position. If the aforementioned MLB options can hold down the fort for another season, the team should have a much clearer picture of their minor-league situation by 2018.