2017 Braves Preview Series: The Catchers

The Atlanta Braves enter 2017 with reasons to be hopeful about the future of the franchise. A rebuilding process has taken place over the past two years, replenishing the minor league system and infusing the pipeline with scores of talented players. However, that took a toll on the big league club. After suffering through a pair of 95-plus loss seasons, the Braves seemed to turn the corner collectively in the second half of 2016. As they move into SunTrust Park and begin writing a new chapter in the franchise’s rich history, Atlanta is hoping that strong finish was a sign of things to come. This five-part preview series will focus on a different aspect of the club over the five weeks leading up to spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report to Disney on February 14 and the first full squad work-out is February 18.

 

 

 

 

Tyler Flowers (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Tyler Flowers (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Tyler Flowers | Age: 31 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3 million

The Braves signed Tyler Flowers to shore up their catching situation a year ago. Lauded for his pitch-framing ability, which remains among the best in baseball, Flowers also provided a steady bat in his return to the organization that originally drafted him back in 2005. After spending seven years with the White Sox and morphing from an offense-first catching prospect to one of the better receivers in the game, Flowers set career-highs across the board as he batted .270/.357/.420 last season. Were it not for a broken hand in July, which cost him about 5 weeks, Flowers may have posted even better numbers. It was a pleasant surprise for a hitter who came into the year with a career slash line of .223/.289/.376 across 1,267 at-bats. After veteran A.J. Pierzynski was unable to duplicate his 2015 success, the club relied more on Flowers than most initially projected. Atlanta’s staff employed 16 different starting pitchers and another 19 relievers, but Flowers drew high marks for his attention to detail, game calling and overall receiving skills.

Despite that praise, Flowers had some defensive woes in 2016, none more pronounced than his inability to halt opposing base stealers. He was successful on just 3-of-63 attempts, which was by far the worst mark in baseball and well below his career rate of 27 percent – which would have qualified as league average last season. Outside of a handful of passed balls, which happen to any and every catcher to some extent, there really wasn’t much to complain about. If anything, it would be fair to expect some regression at the plate and some improvement behind it in 2017. Another encouraging sign, however, was that Flowers saw a modest bump in his walk rate (8.9%) while his strikeout rate fell slightly (28%) last season when compared to his career norms. The offense would certainly he appreciated, but the Braves continue to value the catcher more for his work with the staff than anything else. Flowers will be counted on to make a solid contribution again this year.

Kurt Suzuki (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

Kurt Suzuki (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

Kurt Suzuki | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 1-year, $1.5 million

Atlanta spent the winter scouring the market for ways to upgrade at catcher, but did not pull the trigger on a move until the middle of January, signing veteran Kurt Suzuki to a one-year deal. General manager John Coppolella has referred to catching as the biggest need, one that stretched from top to the bottom of the system. While he added that the team would be comfortable with Tyler Flowers and Anthony Recker opening the season as Atlanta’s catching contingent, it made sense for Coppolella to continue to weigh the options via free agency or trade. After months of speculation involving Matt Wieters and former Brave Brian McCann, the team opted to go with a low-cost free-agent option, rather than be pulled into an scenario that could have proved costly in both money and/or prospects. Suzuki is a 10-year veteran and a former All-Star who batted .258/.301/.403 and collected 33 extra-base hits – 8 home runs – last season while posting his best slugging percentage since 2009. He also fits the bill as a capable defensive catcher, though not known for his pitch framing. Suzuki caught just 19 percent of attempted base-stealers last season and has not been above league average in that category since 2012.

While Flowers and Recker were productive in the second half of last season as Pierzynski faded out of the picture, bringing in a durable catcher on a short-term deal helps Atlanta bridge the gap at the position. Suzuki started 92 games in 2016 and has made 110 or more starts in seven of his nine full big league seasons. His contract includes an extra $2.5 million in incentives, but remains a solid bargain even if he manages to max those out based largely on games played. With most of the catching prospects in the lower levels of the minors, Atlanta will continue to explore options for a long-term solution at the position. Paired with Flowers, Suzuki provides continuity for the staff in 2017.

Anthony Recker (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Anthony Recker (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Anthony Recker | Age: 33 | Contract Status: 2nd year arbitration, $800,000

After bouncing between five organizations over a 12-year career, Anthony Recker enjoyed his best run in the big leagues last season with Atlanta. A career .185 hitter in 455 at-bats, Recker proceeded to slash .278/.394/.433 in 33 games with the Braves. He was a pleasant surprise behind the plate and also boasts some power, which you’d expect from a guy who is 6’2”, 240 lbs. Atlanta was pleased his 2016 showing and avoided arbitration with Recker on a one-year deal. Until the signing of Kurt Suzuki, it appeared Recker would be the Braves’ primary backup. As it stands now, he is could begin the season with Triple-A Gwinnett or be shopped to a team in need of catching help. It’s hard to blame Atlanta for adding Suzuki, but the club is happy to have Recker available should an injury change the plans.

Blake Lalli (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Blake Lalli (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Other options: The Braves will have a handful of catchers in camp this spring, with several added over the past year to improve the organizational depth. David Freitas will turn 28 in March and has some interesting ties to some of his new teammates. He has been traded for both Jim Johnson and Kurt Suzuki over the course of his seven-year minor league career. After flashing a decent bat in his early years, Freitas hit a lull and missed significant playing time in both 2014 and 2015. He rebounded to hit .295/.349 /.437 at two stops in the Cubs system last season. Freitas is likely ticketed for Triple-A Gwinnett… Blake Lalli, 33, has seen big league time with three different clubs, including Atlanta. He serves as organizational depth and won’t factor heavily into Atlanta plans. On an interesting side note, Lalli has made 23 appearances on the mound during his minor league career, posting a 3.44 ERA when pressed into mop-up duty… Braeden Schlehuber, 29, returns for his 10th season in the Braves system. He’s a well-liked back-up that will likely have a chance to coach down the line if he so desires. Schlehuber has batted just .219 over the course of 1,948 at-bats and will be stationed in Gwinnett for a third consecutive season… Joe Odom, 25, received an invite to big league camp after hitting a career-high .278 with nine home runs in 91 games last season. He should return to Double-A Mississippi in 2017… Kade Scivicque, 23, was acquired in a trade last summer and could be an interesting name to keep tabs on this season. Gleaned from the Tigers in return for Erick Aybar last August, Scivicque should see time at Double-A this year as well. An LSU product who was selected in the 4th round of the 2015 draft by the Tigers, he has batted .272 with 11 home runs and 62 RBI in 655 at-bats thus far in his minor league career. Atlanta sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he got some invaluable experience and allowed the organization to get a longer look at him this past winter.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

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