Atlanta Braves: Why the rush to add a catcher?

Sep 27, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves catcher Tyler Flowers (25) hits a three-run home run in the sixth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves already have three catchers with big league experience and don’t expect to contend in 2017. Why the rush to find their backstop of the future?

The Atlanta Braves entered this off-season with three distinct areas of need – starting pitching, third base, and catcher.

They addressed pitching by adding three veteran hurlers and exploring trades for top-of-the-rotation arms. Meanwhile at third, it seems increasingly likely that they will roll the dice with Adonis Garcia as the everyday starter. For the most part, we’ve seen reports about those two areas fade away in recent weeks.

The catching rumors, though, will not go away.

Thus far this winter, Atlanta has had some sort of connection – be it prolonged or merely fleeting – to Jason Castro, Welington Castillo, Matt Wieters, Stephen Vogt, Nick Hundley, Derek Norris, and Wilson Ramos.

Over the summer they were reportedly interested in Jonathan Lucroy before Milwaukee sent him to the Texas Rangers. They’ve also made a couple of minor additions (David Freitas, Tuffy Gosewisch) who could conceivably see some time behind the plate.

Some of those names are no longer on the market but Wieters in particular has become a mainstay in the headlines.

Clearly, the team, the media, or both think that the club needs to bolster its catching situation. However, despite the omnipresent rumblings about adding a backstop I’m left wondering…why now?

Jun 30, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves catcher Tyler Flowers (25) argues with umpire Larry Vanover (27) over a call after being ejected from the game against the Miami Marlins during the ninth inning at Turner Field. The Braves defeated the Marlins 8-5. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Tough Decisions

Don’t get me wrong – Tyler Flowers is unlikely to start for the next division champion Braves team – but why the immediate need to add a starting caliber catcher? That next division champion team will almost certainly not be the 2017 iteration of the club.

As it stands, the team will enter next season with a combination of Flowers, Gosewisch, and Anthony Recker at catcher. That gives them a serviceable big league regular coming off his best offensive season to date and a pair of backups with prior MLB experience.

Flowers is under contract for $3 million in 2017 with a $4 million club option for 2018. Gosewisch and Recker make close to league minimum.

Looking at the names associated with Atlanta over the offseason, who provides a marked improvement over that? Further, when factoring in the salaries/prospects associated with signing or trading for one of those players, who provides enough additional value to warrant the additional cost?

Castro has garnered praise for his receiving and game management skills but is far from an elite defender and limped to a .210/.307/.377 line in 376 plate appearances last season. Ramos had a breakout season but a torn ACL has put his long-term durability into question. Vogt is a worse hitter than Flowers with only marginally better defense. Hundley and Norris are lucky to still be on major league rosters.

Out-Waiting Scott Boras?

Meanwhile Wieters, the biggest name still available, has far more name value than actual value. As a prospect, he received some tremendous praise (i.e. a switch-hitting Joe Mauer with power) and that has followed him ever since. In reality, he’s a second or third tier starting catcher with a little pop and above-average (though not Gold Glove-level) defense and currently holding out for Boras money.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect Castro, Castillo, Ramos or Wieters to perform better than Flowers next season.

It would be unreasonable, though, to expect that difference in performance to be so vast that it would noticeably alter Atlanta’s fortunes in 2017.

Sep 30, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (25) touches the beard of relief pitcher Sam Dyson (47) after the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Texas won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Value Proposition… for now

However, despite their relatively similar short-term outlooks Flowers can be retained for two more seasons at an average annual value of $3.5 million while the others have either already signed multi-year deals for at least twice that much (in terms of AAV) or, in Wieters’ case, is a virtual lock to do so.

Again, that doesn’t mean that Flowers is the answer at catcher for the next five or so years. Given Atlanta’s interest in every available backstop, it feels safe to say that he isn’t in their long-term plans. The need just doesn’t seem as pressing as some have suggested.

By waiting, weathering another season with the current slate of catchers, and revamping the search next offseason, the club could have better options available.

Lucroy, a known-target, is scheduled to hit free agency. While he will undoubtedly command a large contract, elite catchers rarely become available and GM John Coppolella has suggested that the club has more available money to spend than at anytime in recent memory.

In addition to Lucroy, next year’s free agent crop includes a number of low-cost bounce back candidates like Miguel Montero and Alex Avila. And who knows, maybe the Marlins decide to rebuild and make J.T. Realmuto available?

Maybe the Red Sox fully commit to Sandy Leon as their catcher of the future and make Blake Swihart a trade chip? Maybe a blocked prospect like Elias Diaz or former Braves farmhand Victor Caratini becomes expendable to their current club?

By the time those possibilities become relevant, Atlanta will be one year closer to legitimate contention, have a better understanding of their team needs, and still have an affordable big league-caliber catcher on the roster in the form of Flowers.

I get why some would like to see the Braves make a move for their backstop of the future. After a long and arduous rebuild, the roster of the future has begun to take shape. There’s a player with tremendous potential (either on the big league roster or waiting in the minors) at every position except catcher. It would be nice to have an entire lineup’s worth of players on which to dream.

Unfortunately, the team’s highly competitive future is more than a year away and committing to the next long-term catcher now could result in being saddled with an option that is less than ideal.

The Braves, as they’ve done with other spots on the diamond, will find an answer at catcher. I’m just not convinced that it needs to happen this winter.

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