FOXSportsSouth.com’s team of Braves writers are taking a look back at 2015, position by position, and breaking down what we know heading into what figures to be another busy offseason. We start things off with catcher.
12 –Number of home runs Braves catchers hit in 2015, led by A.J. Pierzynski’s nine. That ended a stretch of 10 seasons in which Atlanta’s backstops hit at least 22.
.300 — Pieryznski’s batting averages in his age 38 season. It was his highest in eight years.
8 — Passed balls charged to Christian Bethancourt. Only seven catchers had more, led by Russell Martin’s 19, but Bethancourt played in 42 games, while Martin appeared in 117.
During the season wrap up meeting in manager Fredi Gonzalez’s office, president of baseball operations John Hart was clear about two things regarding the 24-year-old Panamanian catcher: "We absolutely love the skill set of Bethancourt," Hart said. "(But) I think it’s been a slow-developing process."
Bethancourt was given the starting job out of spring training, but he hit .198/.221/.287 with one homer, nine RBI and 18 strikeouts through 29 games and 101 at-bats and had five passed balls, including three in three straight games before his June 15 demotion.
"It just didn’t work out the way we’d hoped," Hart said, "especially the first six-eight weeks."
He found his groove at Triple-A Gwinnett with a .327 average and .359 on-base percentage in 52 games and rejoined the Braves on Aug. 24, and while the next 19 games weren’t spectacular (.204 with one homer, two doubles, three RBI and 15 strikeouts to two walks and three passed balls), he did finish strong with a .320 average over his last eight games.
But is that enough to say that Bethancourt is finally ready to be the everyday backstop?
"I wish that we could have stayed the course with Bethancourt and had a better feel of exactly where he is," Hart said. "There’s absolutely no denying the level of talent, the level of skill he has, that he does possess. At some point he has to seize it."
The simple truth is the Braves don’t know what they have in the young catcher, though he is currently the only catcher on the 2016 roster. The guess here is that once again, Bethancourt gets every opportunity to be the guy, with Atlanta needing to have a final answer on his development with an onus of begin competitive in ’16 and a contender in ’17.
If he can’t … well, that brings us to the player who basically took the job in 2015 …
In rediscovering his stroke, the perception of Pierzynski went from an aging catcher playing out the string to a catcher that still has plenty to offer — and that could make it very difficult for Atlanta t hold on to him.
But the lack of strong options on the free-agent market could force the Braves hand to keep a player they are comfortable with. It also could lead them to avoid putting too much in a player on the wrong side of 30 with the hope that Bethancourt finally puts it all together.
That’s basically a summation of the precarious position Bethancourt’s slow development has Atlanta in.
"He’s certainly in our plans and we realize A.J. is a free agent and we’re going to examine the catching market a lot this winter as we go forward," Hart said.
Pierzynski would most certainly have value to an American League team, given that he could serve as a designated hitter along with getting starts behind the plate as a backup.
"Look, A.J.’s put himself back on the map," Hart said. "You look up and an American League club comes in and decides they want him … we’re out there competing."
Signed to a one-year, $2 million deal by the Braves — a contract that wound up being a bargain as Pierzynski had his highest WAR (2.1) since 2012 — it’s likely going to take much more to get him back.
Atlanta knows how strong he is in working with a young pitching staff and the ability at the plate, but it really boils down to whether they are willing to do so in what could become a make-or-break season for Bethancourt.
Here’s where things get dicey. Let’s say the Braves watch Pierzynski go elsewhere and don’t return Ryan Lavarnway. Who else is out there?
The list of free-agent catchers is short, with former All-Stars Alex Avila, Dioner Navarro and Geovany Soto and Matt Wieters, Chris Iannetta, Jordan Pacheco and former Braves Brayan Pena and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Avila is the only one under 30 and considering his father, Al, is the Tigers general manager, it would be stunning for him not to be back there.
Wieters, a Georgia Tech product, may be the most compelling player on that list, but he wasn’t great in his return from Tommy John surgery, hitting .267/.219/.422 with eight homers and 25 RBI in 282 plate appearances. He also has a good bit of mileage on him for a 30 year old, racking up 6,018 1/3 innings behind the plate.
If the Braves want to go with a veteran not named Pierzynski, bringing back Pena (34) or Saltalamacchia (31) would make sense. Pena hasn’t posted a negative defensive WAR since 2009 and Saltalamacchia hasn’t done so in six seasons.
"It’s not a deep market and at some point, it’s probably the thinnest as far as impactful guys," Hart said. "It’s a tough position to fill externally … We’re out there in the catching universe this winter, for sure."