If you’re late to the series, get caught up here:
- Part 1, Braves Payroll
- Part 2, Braves Rotation
- Part 3, Braves Bullpen
- Part 4, Braves Infield
- Part 5, Braves Outfield
Unlike so many contributors here, I do not follow minor league baseball. So I’m generally handicapped in these “Where Do We Go From Here” stories because I’m ignorant. But this year, I watched every minor league game played at every level, so I’m caught up with you guys, at least until some of you start reporting from Winter Ball in Tierra del Fuego or somewhere.
In any case, that makes catcher pretty easy. We have Travis d’Arnaud (who my wife calls The Duck) and he had a 2020 that far outstripped what was expected of him, though not out of line with his short stint with the Rays in 2019, so it just might, barring injury, represent a sustainable level of performance. If I had told you last December that you would be happy with d’Arnaud hitting cleanup, I’m not sure you’d have believed me, but there are really a lot of things I could have told you last December that you wouldn’t have believed and turned out to be true. d’Arnaud’s future is probably not as the Braves cleanup hitter, but even at a solid 6th or 7th he’s a major upgrade from Flowers. (How much better he is than Kurt Suzuki is an open question, but this is an article about where we’re going, not where we’ve been. And d’Arnaud is 6 years younger than Suzuki.)
I was very impressed with d’Arnaud’s performance behind the plate in the playoffs. He really moves around back there and blocks everything. You can’t do that all season (and you don’t need to) but it does tell me that he’s plenty athletic behind the dish. And Ian Anderson seems to love him. That’s about all I need to know.
Travis is signed through next year. Tyler Flowers will not return (I think… see below). The backup catching duties have three prospects: William Contreras, Alex Jackson and Shea Langeliers. The great thing about no MiLB is that there are probably three people on the planet who know which of them is ready, and they’re not talking. My take: Contreras is ready, Jackson will be around in case of injury, and Langeliers isn’t ready yet. I’m perfectly happy to be wrong about these guesses, because that’s all they are.
Contreras has the pedigree as the brother of Willson Contreras. Travis d’Arnaud is better at baseball than his brother, so there’s no reason William Contreras can’t be better than his. Contreras is only 22, has under 60 games of experience beyond A-Ball, but is a lifetime 0.400 major league hitter. I see no reason he can’t keep that up.
Alex Jackson was a first round draft pick by the Mariners in 2014 and is only 24, but there is precious little evidence that he can hit well enough to be a major league catcher. By that I mean he hits like Tyler Flowers. (That was mean. I apologize to Tyler Flowers.) The Braves acquired him in the Max Povse–Rob Whalen trade. Both of them are out of baseball, so I guess the Braves won that trade. But he has real potential, just not as much as Contreras or Langeliers.
Shea Langeliers, the Braves #1 pick (9th overall) in the 2019 draft out of Baylor is, like Contreras, also 22. The fact that Braves used Contreras and Jackson in 2020 ought to tell you they don’t think Langeliers is ready yet, but I presume he’ll get a good look in Spring Training. He’s not on the 40-man roster, unlike Jackson and Contreras. Fun Note: Langeliers’ middle name is Ryan, and when he appears for the Braves they will have had both Ryan Langerhans and S. Ryan Langeliers on their team. I only mention this because I keep wanting to call him Ryan.
So the Braves have a catcher they love and three very young prospects. Is there any chance they’ll resign Tyler Flowers to give those three another chance to mature? I don’t see it, especially in a year where they’re trying to save payroll, i.e., every year. I suspect all three will get a serious look in Spring Training and the backup role will go to whoever does best, with the other two in the wings, ready to go. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t want to be leaning so heavily on Travis d’Arnaud and kids. (Although in 1971 the Braves started a 22 year old at catcher and he won Rookie of the Year.) But it’s not a bad bet to make while you address other issues and save money. Last year the Braves were 6th in MLB in Catcher salary. (The Duck is the 7th highest-paid catcher, which I admit surprised me a bit. Nobody is paid nearly as much as Buster Posey, which makes me laugh. And the Mets pay Wilson Ramos $2.4 million more than d’Arnaud, the catcher they cut in 2019 and who produced 3 times the WAR in 2020, which reminds me that no one ever went broke betting against the Mets front office and medical staff.) Clearing Flowers’ $4 million (tied for 18th among all MLB catchers) and replacing it with a guy at the league minimum saves about $3.4 million. John Malone probably needs the money.