2020 Braves Positional Preview Series: Catchers
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
Grant McAuley’s 2020 Braves Preview Series breaks down a different position group as the club gets set for the regular season. While MLB continues to monitor the current coronavirus pandemic, this series offers an in-depth look at the men who will make up Atlanta's big league roster as well as candidates to contribute at some point this season.
Travis d'Arnaud | Age: 30 | Contract Status: 2-years, $16 million
The Braves moved swiftly this winter to address their need behind the plate, inking veteran catcher Travis d’Arnaud to a two-year contract in November. It was part of a slew of early moves by Alex Anthopoulos. Interestingly enough, it was then-Toronto GM Anthopoulos who acquired d’Arnaud from the Phillies in the Roy Halladay trade of 2009 and then dealt the young backstop to the Mets to acquire R.A. Dickey in 2013. New York believed d’Arnaud would be its catcher of the future. Despite flashes over his seven years there, that never materialized.
The right-handed hitting d’Arnaud made stops with three different teams in 2019, eventually landing with the Tampa Bay Rays and putting together one of his best offensive seasons. After 10 games with the Mets and just one with the Dodgers, he slashed .263/.323/.459 with 16 homers and 67 RBI in 92 games for the Rays. That bounce-back effort came after a lost 2018 campaign in which d’Arnaud underwent Tommy John surgery. The elbow injury and New York’s signing of Wilson Ramos ultimately combined to make d’Arnaud expendable. He was released on May 3, signed with the Dodgers on May 5 and was then purchased by Tampa Bay on May 10. That busy week set d’Arnaud up with regular playing time for the Rays, and he took full advantage of that opportunity.
He’ll get that chance again with Atlanta, taking the place of the recently retired Brian McCann. d’Arnaud will team with Tyler Flowers, both right-handed hitters. FanGraphs projects that duo to post a 1.5 WAR apiece this season, in line with the combined 3.2 WAR the Braves received from their catchers in 2019. Atlanta’s front office believes that d’Arnaud will benefit from playing in Truist Park because of his ability to drive the ball to right center, an attribute that attracted them to Josh Donaldson a year ago. While Flowers is the better pitch framer of the two, d’Arnaud has been perfectly adequate behind the plate over the course of his seven-year career. He is excited about being reunited with Sal Fasano, the Braves catching coach who worked with d’Arnaud in the minor leagues. Given Atlanta’s best catching prospects are still working their way through the minors and may not be ready for a couple of years, adding d’Arnaud to the mix should provide a quality option behind the plate in the interim.
Tyler Flowers | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $4 million
The Braves opted to bring Tyler Flowers back for his fourth season in Atlanta. After declining his option, the club paid Flowers a $2 million buyout and then re-signed him to a new $4 million contract. While Travis d’Arnaud has the offensive profile, Flowers has proven himself as one of the best pitch framing catchers in the league over the past few seasons. This will give Brian Snitker the chance to best utilize Flowers in pairings that could benefit that night’s starting pitcher. After slashing .276/.368/.433 with 20 homers and 90 RBI in 182 games during his first two seasons with Atlanta, Flowers regressed over the past two. His line dropped to .228/.330/.387 with 19 homers over the course of 167 games in 2018 and 2019 combined. Suffice it to say, the offensive expectations for Flowers are probably somewhere in the middle of those two slash lines.
Pitch framing has been the one area in which Flowers truly excels. He’s been at or near the top of the major league leaders in those metrics on an annual basis. According to Baseball Prospectus, Flowers ranked fourth in the big leagues last season with 15.3 framing runs, a statistic that pulls from PITCHf/x data to determine a catcher’s ability to garner extra called strikes. Flowers has been one of the leaders in that category in each of his four seasons with Atlanta. While he gets high marks for his framing and game planning, Flowers went through an ugly defensive stretch in 2019. He led the majors with 16 passed balls, 13 of which occurred in his first 49 starts. Flowers was charged with just three passed balls during his final 28 games – two of those in one contest. He admitted that some of his catching mechanics may have been the culprit for a portion of those passed balls. With that seemingly cleaned up, Flowers will help d’Arnaud carry the load in 2020.
Down on the farm:
Former Mariners first round pick Alex Jackson was a bit of a project for the Braves. Acquired in the winter of 2016, Jackson was converted from the outfield back to catcher – his high school position. Jackson, 24, has significant power and has made strides each season behind the plate. He received a brief call-up in 2019 when Brian McCann landed on the injured list but went 0-for-13 in his four big league games. Jackson belted 28 home runs in just 306 at-bats for Triple-A Gwinnett, turning in an .846 OPS. The downside was a .229 average to go along with a 39% strikeout rate. Jackson is already on Atlanta’s 40-man roster and stands to be the first man up in the event of an injury or emergency. Of course, that’s dependent on any further moves by the club this spring.
William Contreras has been Atlanta’s top catching prospect during his five-year career. The talented 22-year-old made it to Double-A in 2019, where he encountered his first real offensive struggles. After hitting .263 in 50 games for High-A Florida, he batted just .246 with three home runs in 60 games for Mississippi. It’s worth noting the Florida State League is typically a pitcher-friendly league and Trustmark Park isn’t exactly a hitters' haven either. Despite the down numbers in 2019, Contreras has shown flashes of power and decent on-base skills in 339 minor league games. The brother of Cubs All-Star catcher Wilson, the younger Contreras displays solid defense and great athleticism. The next steps will be putting some of the other pieces in place, from game planning and calling to communication. Contreras is coming to big league camp for the third time this spring, though he seems ticketed for a return to Mississippi.
The Braves added a significant catching prospect through the draft in 2019, taking Baylor backstop Shea Langeliers with the No. 9 overall pick. He debuted for Low-A Rome and batted .255 across 54 games. Atlanta believes Langeliers will contribute at the plate but is most excited about what he does behind the dish. Team officials praised his elite defense, strong arm, toughness for the position and outstanding makeup. Add to that the potential to hit for power and Braves vice president of scouting Dana Brown said that Langeliers could make it to the big leagues fairly quickly. Like Contreras, he is 22 years old. Langeliers is likely to start his season with High-A Florida but could return to Rome first. Either way, he will do so after making a positive in impression in his first big league camp, where he lived up to his defensive billing and batted ,429 (6-for-14) with a home run and five RBI.