January 2018

2018 Braves Positional Preview: Outfield

The Atlanta outfield has been a work in progress over the past three years. Many names have been penciled in that grouping, particularly in left field. With Matt Kemp shipped back to Los Angeles, there figures to be a new name patrolling the green spaces at SunTrust Park this season. At some point this season, Ronald Acuña, the club’s top prospect will be making his highly anticipated major league debut. Until that time arrives, the Braves will be counting on a defensive wizard, a veteran stalwart and some role players to round out the outfield trifecta on a daily basis.

Ender Inciarte | CF | Age: 27 | Contract Status: 4-years, $26.8 million

The Braves’ defense has been anchored by Ender Inciarte for the past two seasons. Acquired in the same trade that landed Dansby Swanson, the early results favor Inciarte as the big return. Two gold gloves and an All-Star appearance later, Inciarte has made the most of an opportunity to play every day. Providing above average defense while serving as a table-setter atop the Atlanta lineup, Inciarte has been everything the Braves could have hoped when they brought him over from Arizona.

Let’s start with the defense, because that has become his calling card. Inciarte makes the easy plays. He makes the hard plays. He makes the hard plays look easy. In short, Inciarte covers some serious ground in center field. His 410 put-outs were the most by any outfielder in the National League in 2017 by a considerable margin. Over the past two seasons, Inciarte’s 761 PO in 2,487 innings are the most in the major leagues. That’s 49 PO more than the next closest outfielder, Mookie Betts of the Red Sox, despite the fact that Inciarte has played 24 fewer games than Betts in that two year span. Inciarte’s seven outfield assists in 2017 tied for 10th in the NL and 21st the majors. While that total is down from his 14 assists in 2016, that’s due at least in part to runners respecting the arm of Inciarte.

Inciarte has also been doing work at the top of the order for Atlanta. Dating back to the second half of 2016, Inciarte has racked up 301 hits over 229 games while posting a .315 batting average. He set or matched career-highs in virtually every offensive category last season, including a .304 average, 201 hits, 93 runs, 27 doubles, 11 home runs, 57 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Those 201 hits were second only to the Rockies Charlie Blackmon (213) in all of baseball in 2017. Atlanta enters the upcoming season with options at the lead-off spot. Inciarte could return there or slide down and allow second baseman Ozzie Albies to take a turn at the top. The impending arrival of a certain star prospect will also lead to some interesting lineup decisions down the line.

Nick Markakis | RF | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $11 million

Nick Markakis heads into the final season of his four-year deal with the Braves. After spending nine seasons in Baltimore to begin his career, the veteran outfielder has more or less provided what the team expected in his three-year stint with the Braves. His style is certainly not flashy, but Markakis handles his job in a workmanlike manner. He could easily be described as a good soldier. He has done everything asked of him. Despite having neck surgery just after signing with Atlanta, Markakis has proven to be a durable staple in the lineup, averaging 158 games per season. Barring any last-minute transactions, Markakis will once again be counted on to provide stability in the Atlanta lineup in 2018.

At the plate, Markakis hit .275/.354/.384 in 160 games last season. That slash-line is right in line with Markakis’ normal output over the last five seasons, but his production is not what it once was at the outset of his career with Baltimore. He averaged a .295/.365/.455 line with 41 doubles, 19 homers and 85 RBI per 162 games played from 2006-2012. That has fallen to .277/.348/.380 with 35 doubles, 10 homers and 68 RBI per 162 games over the past five seasons.  Bottom line, Markakis is a solid contact hitter who has spent time in virtually every spot in the batting order over the past three years. That kind of bat comes in handy. Additionally, he was at his best with men in scoring position in 2017, driving in 67 runs in those 147 at-bats, both team-highs.

The Braves know what they have in Markakis, who is a quiet leader in the clubhouse and is well-respected by his teammates. After posting a 2.5 WAR in 2014 for the Orioles according to FanGraphs, he’s seen that value decrease in each of his three seasons with Atlanta – from 1.5 in 2015 to 1.1 in 2016 to 0.7 last season. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate has steadily risen in each of the last seven seasons – from 10.5% in 2011 up to 16.4% in 2017. Markakis still finds his way on base enough to maintain his status as a useful everyday player. He surpass 2,000 career hits last season and is just the 10th active player to reach that plateau. That’s a tribute to his steady production over the course of his career.

Defensively, he makes the routine plays, but Markakis’ days as an above-average outfielder are behind him. He has two gold glove awards, but his range and arm strength have both diminished in recent years. Depending on what the club decides to do with Ronald Acuña this season, Markakis might benefit from a move to left field. The Braves can cross that bridge at the appropriate time.

Lane Adams | OF | Age: 28 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Lane Adams finally got a chance for an extended stay in the major leagues in 2017. He certainly made the most of that chance to show off his considerable athleticism when called upon. Adams was originally a 13th round draft pick by the Royals in 2009 and earned a brief call-up in 2014. After bouncing from Kansas City to the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs systems, Adams briefly pondered retirement before eventually signing a minor league deal with Atlanta in December of 2016. Blessed with great speed and some pop at the plate, Adams proved he was a capable reserve and fill-in option for the Braves in the second half.

Adams batted .275/.339/.468 with five home runs among his 10 extra-base hits in 109 at-bats. Having already racked up 223 stolen bases in the minors, he swiped 10 bases in as many big league attempts in 2017. Adams became Atlanta’s primary pinch-hitter down the stretch, batting .267 with a pair of home runs and 12 RBI in 45 at-bats in that role. That contribution was a large part of a much-improved bench as the season wore on. In fact, Atlanta pinch-hitters combined to lead the majors with 10 home runs and 54 RBI in 242 at-bats last season. Depending on what the club decides to do with top prospect Ronald Acuña, some regular playing time could come Adams’ way to begin the 2018 season. Regardless, Adams will be counted on as a key contributor in a reserve capacity

Preston Tucker | INF | Age: 27 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The Braves acquired Preston Tucker from Houston in an off-season trade, hoping his lefty bat could provide some of the power he showed in his 2015 rookie season. Tucker, whose younger brother Kyle also plays in the Astros system, did not appear in the big leagues in 2017. The Tampa native spent the season at Triple-A Fresno, where he batted .250 with 24 home runs and 96 RBI in 128 games. Tucker owns a lifetime .282/.353/.491 line in the minors with three 20-homer campaigns, so the power is definitely there. He hit .243/.297/.437 with 13 homers among his 32 extra-base hits in 300 at-bats for Houston in 2015, but managed just .164 AVG with four home runs in 48 games in his sophomore season.

Atlanta added Tucker in a late-December trade for a player to be named later or cash considerations after he’d been designated for assignment by the Astros. He is expected to compete for at-bats in left field and off the bench as a lefty-hitting option. There’s a chance he may be asked to play some first base in order to provide a back-up option for Freddie Freeman, a role left vacant with the departure of Matt Adams. Tucker has one option remaining and could be stashed at Triple-A Gwinnett should the Braves decide to make any further roster moves over the weeks leading up to opening day.

Ronald Acuna | OF | Age: 20 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Yes, I saved the proverbial best for last. Ronald Acuña is not only the Braves’ top prospect, but he’s arguably the top prospect in all of baseball. Baseball America has already recognized him as a such with the release of their Top 100 prospects list in mid-January. Acuña had an incredible season in 2017, making three stops up the minor league ladder and getting better at each level. Altogether, he batted .325 with 21 homers, 82 RBI, 88 runs scored and 44 stolen bases. And he did all of that at the age of 19.

Acuña’s journey started with the High-A Florida Fire Frogs in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. All he did there was bat .287 with 11 extra-base hits and 14 stolen bases in 28 games. He followed that up with a torrid stretch in Double-A Mississippi, slashing .326/.374/.520 with nine home runs among 25 XBH to go along with 30 RBI, 29 runs scored and 19 steals in 57 games. Triple-A was next on Acuña’s hit list. He exploded onto the scene as the youngest player in the International League and hit .344/.393/.548 with 9 homers, 33 RBI, 38 runs scored and 11 steals in 54 games.

Need an encore? No problem. Acuña terrorized the Arizona Fall League as well. He batted .325 and led the league with seven home runs on his way to earning MVP honors. It was truly a meteoric rise for a prospect who was well-regarded before the season started and well-renown by the time it ended. Acuña is a five-tool player and those are hard to come by. Though he was prone to the strikeout – with 144 of those in 557 at-bats – there was never a period of time in any league in which Acuña seemed completely over-matched. His ability to make timely adjustments is an attribute that will serve Acuña well as he looks to get accustomed to the big leagues.

The Braves will give Acuña plenty of playing time this spring as he prepares to make that jump at some point in 2018. Manager Brian Snitker has said on multiple occasions that he was so impressed with Acuña last spring that he very well could have made the big league club on pure talent alone. This was a kid who had just 148 at-bats above the rookie-ball level. Most agree that Acuña has the chance to be an above average center fielder, but that decision will be a difficult one with a premium defender like Inciarte already entrenched at the big league level. Atlanta will likely have Acuña start the season in the minors in order to insure another year of team control, but a mid-April call-up seems like a distinct possibility. If 2017 is any indication, then Acuña’s big league debut will be must-see television.

Non-roster options:

The Braves have a handful of outfielders in camp vying for playing time in some cases, and simply looking to make a first impression in others. Obviously Acuña is the biggest name on this list and has been covered extensively. Another highly-touted prospect heading into his first big league camp is Cristian Pache, the 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic. Talent evaluators have deemed Pache’s defense in center field to be both major league ready and gold glove caliber. He batted .281 with 32 stolen bases, but is still looking for his first professional home run. Despite that, many believe there’s untapped power in Pache’s bat. Perhaps he’ll begin to unlock it at High-A Florida this season… Dustin Peterson, 23, enters what feels like a make-or-break year in many respects. He had a chance to compete in big league camp last year, but a fractured hamate in his left hand derailed those hopes. That injury sidelined Peterson for a couple of months at the start of the season and probably sapped his strength once he did return. Peterson batted .248 with one home run and 30 RBI in 87 games for Triple-A Gwinnett. That setback came after being named the Braves minor league hitter of the year in 2016, when he batted .288 with 38 doubles, 12 homers and 88 RBI in Double-A Mississippi. Peterson was left exposed in the Rule 5 draft over the winter, but was not selected and thus has a chance to redeem himself and get back on track in the Braves organization. A second tour of duty in Gwinnett seems likely… Jaff Decker, soon-to-be 28 years old, was a minor league signing who brings some big league experience with him to camp. Dacker was originally a first round supplemental pick by San Diego in 2008 and has played 77 big league games with four different clubs. He’s batted .174 in just 161 at-bats between the Padres, Pirates, Rays and Athletics. Decker is well-rounded player who can work a count, run the bases well and hit the occasional home run. He’ll probably serve as organizational depth on stand-by at Gwinnett this season… Atlanta brought back the versatile Danny Santana, 27, who was acquired from the Twins last season and spent most of 2017 with the Braves. He signed a minor league deal to return after being non-tendered in December. A switch-hitter who can play all over the diamond, Santana has struggled to recreate the success of his rookie season. He batted .319 with 41 extra-base hits and 20 stolen bases over 101 games for Minnesota in 2014. Since then, he’s slashed just .221/.255/.320 in 703 plate appearances over 248 games. Santana plays three infield positions and all three spots in the outfield and will compete for a spot on the bench this spring. At worst, the Braves have an insurance policy with some major league experience at they ready should injury inevitably crop up this season.

2018 Braves Positional Preview: Infield

The Atlanta Braves infielders will be an interesting group to watch for a variety of reasons. Heading that contingent is All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman. He was on his way to a career-year when a broken wrist put him on the shelf for six weeks in 2017. Meanwhile, Dansby Swanson struggled through his rookie season just as Ozzie Albies made his big league debut. Throw in a question mark at third base and the Braves head to spring training looking for some answers.

Freddie Freeman | 1B | Age: 28 | Contract Status: 4-years, $86 million

Oh, what could have been for Freddie Freeman in 2017. After putting together an MVP-caliber start, his season was derailed by a broken left wrist. Then things got weird. “Freddie Freeman, third baseman” became a thing for a couple of weeks. Eventually he moved back to first base, where he closed out one of the best all-around seasons of his career. Building off of a terrific 2016 campaign, Freeman set new career-highs in on-base percentage and slugging percentage as he matched his best OPS+. While Freeman made it back to the Atlanta lineup ahead of schedule, there’s no doubt that he will have benefited from some extended rest this winter.

Just how good was Freeman’s 2017 campaign going before that wrist injury on May 17? He was leading the National League with 14 home runs, a .748 slugging percentage, a 1.209 on-base plus slugging, ranked second with 26 extra-base hits and third with 35 runs scored. His .341 batting average was also the sixth best in the NL. It was an insanely hot start on the heels of a torrid finish to the 2016 season. Over a 162-game span from July 27, 2016 to September 17, 2017, Freeman posted a .332/.436/.638 line with 51 doubles, 44 homers, 124 RBI, 130 runs scored, 10 steals, 106BB/141K in 603 AB. Sure, it’s not all in one calendar year, but Freeman’s emergence as one of the premier power-hitting first basemen in the game is complete.

Last season also represented a noticeable spike in Freeman’s annual salary, which will be roughly $21 million through 2021, his age 31 season. With Freeman in the prime of his career, the Braves are hoping an influx of youth and new talent can help bring the club back into contention. While 2018 appears to be a long shot, the Braves are finally in a position to reap the rewards of their rebuild. Freeman remains a central figure in the Atlanta lineup, but will need some help in the middle of the order if the Braves want to make some noise in the National League East and beyond.

Ozzie Albies | 2B | Age: 21 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The much-heralded Ozzie Albies made his big league debut in 2017 and did not disappoint. A speedy middle infielder who transitioned from shortstop to second base over the past two seasons, Albies does just about everything well and packs surprising pop from his 5-foot-9 frame. At just 21 years old, he has routinely been the among the youngest players at each level he has played. That culminated with his promotion to the majors in August. Entering the 2018 season, Albies has still yet to face a pitcher who is younger than him in his professional career.

A switch-hitter with a high-leg kick and a quick bat, the Braves’ first look at Albies in the big leagues was certainly promising. He batted .286/.354/.456 across 217 at-bats, belting six homers among 20 extra-base hits. He has top of the charts speed and runs the bases extremely well, evidenced by his eight steals in nine attempts. Albies hit .304 in 1,555 minor league at-bats and won the Southern League batting title in 2016. Last season, he began driving the ball more and hitting it on the ground less. That’s a trend among hitters in today’s game looking to maximize production through improved launch angle and higher exit velocity. Though he won’t be eligible for Rookie of the Year consideration in 2018, Albies seems primed to be one of the top young players in the National League.

Dansby Swanson | SS | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration                                                

The 2017 season was filled with ups and downs for Dansby Swanson, a local product who was propelled through the minor leagues and straight to Atlanta just over a year after being the top pick in the 2015 June draft. Swanson started slowly at the plate and was exploited by a steady diet of breaking balls. Unfortunately for Swanson, his struggles extended to the field as well. He batted just .189 and committed 11 errors over his first 49 games, though his fielding improved in the second half (9 errors in 93 games). With the emergence of Johan Camargo as a viable option at shortstop, Swanson was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett at midseason.

To his credit, he took the set-back in stride, said the right things and put in the work in order to rejoin Atlanta a couple of weeks later. At the plate, there was one pitch that gave Swanson a considerable amount of trouble. According to Statcast, Swanson saw sliders 20.8 percent of the time, the fourth highest percentage among qualified hitters in 2017. Invariably, he is going to have to show that he can hit the breaking ball in order to force pitcher to adjust. There were far too many peaks and valleys offensively for a player who’d been a consistent performer during his high school and college career. The rapid rise through the minors did not allow for much seasoning and required more on the job training at the big league level than most players are subjected to.

It’s safe to say that 2017 was, by in large, a disappointment for Swanson. The limited look in the minors and solid first impression in 2016 had many hoping that he’d be able to make a seamless transition to the majors. While that wasn’t the case, there is still plenty of reason to believe that he can develop into a productive every day player. An outstanding all-around talent with the makeup that helped him navigate through a challenging rookie season, Swanson will embark on a pivotal 2018 campaign with redemption on his mind.

Johan Camargo | INF | Age: 24 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

Perhaps no player in the Braves organization has made a better impression in a shorter amount of time than Johan Camargo. Known mostly for his cannon-like arm, Camargo had been a light-hitting shortstop over the first three seasons of his minor league career. All of that began to change at Double-A Mississippi in 2016 when he collected a career-high 36 extra-base hits and was added to Atlanta’s 40-man roster over the winter. That move surprised some at the time, but turned out to be the right call.

Camargo’s bat took another step forward in 2017. It started in spring training when he began to generate some buzz as a dark horse candidate to crack the 25-man roster. Though he would start the season in Triple-A Gwinnett, Camargo wouldn’t stay down there for long. After a hot start, he worked his way to Atlanta to stay by mid-summer. The switch-hitter batted .299/.331/.452 with 21 doubles, four home runs and 27 RBI in 241 AB while making 30 starts third base, 23 at shortstop and another half a dozen at second base.

His emerging bat and defensive versatility lead many to wonder what the best role for Camargo will be. The Braves head into 2018 without a clear-cut third baseman, though that could change in the lead up to opening day. Camargo has certainly shown enough promise to the compete for that job in spring training, but the jury remains out on where he fits in Atlanta’s long-term plan.

Charlie Culberson | INF | Age: 28 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

The Braves added a slick-fielding reserve option when they plucked Georgia native Charlie Culberson from the Dodgers in the December trade that sent Matt Kemp back to Los Angeles. Culberson grew up in Calhoun, Georgia, and was a first round selection by the San Francisco Giants in the 2007 draft. He’s bounced around some since then, playing parts of five seasons in the major leagues with the Giants, Colorado Rockies and Dodgers. Culberson’s bat has not produced enough to earn him regular playing time or a regular spot. That was not the case in the postseason in 2017, however. Culberson filled in for the injured Corey Seager in the NLDS and came through with some key hits in the NLCS as well. Altogether, he batted .500 with four extra-base hits and four runs scored in his 16 playoff at-bats.

Upon taking the general manager post with Atlanta, Alex Anthopoulos said he would like to take steps to improve Atlanta’s defense. The Braves were tied for 26th in the majors with -43 defensive runs saved in 2017 according to FanGraphs. Divesting themselves of Kemp (-17 DRS) was a good start. Adding the sure-handed Culberson was another good step. With a pitching staff built around young arms for the foreseeable future, run prevention is a key component to their combined success. While Culberson is just a .231 hitter and doesn’t figure to nab too many starting assignments, his value as a platoon player and late-inning defensive replacement should not be overlooked. He could ably step in should there be an injury to one of Atlanta’s starting infielders and can also play the outfield.

Rio Ruiz | 3B | Age: 23 | Contract Status: Pre-arbitration

One of the many prospects acquired via trade as Atlanta began its rebuild after the 2014 season, Rio Ruiz got his first extended taste of the big leagues in 2017. Originally a fourth round draft pick by Houston in 2012, Ruiz has worked tirelessly to improve his conditioning and glove work over the past two seasons. After bouncing between Triple-A Gwinnett and Atlanta last summer, Ruiz was never able to seize the starting third base job. He’ll come to spring training hoping to get another opportunity. With Johan Camargo also looking for regular at-bats, it will be an interesting competition between two young players at third base for the Braves. Of course, that is barring any further offseason acquisitions that may occur in the coming weeks and months in advance of opening day.

Ruiz’s power numbers spiked in 2017, with a career-high 20 home runs among his 52 extra-base hits between the minors and majors. However, he batted just .193 and struck out 41 times in 173 plate appearances for Atlanta. That 23-percent strikeout rate is high but not terribly out of line in a game where punch-outs are becoming more and more accepted as the price to pay for increased offense. Ruiz will have to demonstrate his ability to produce those power numbers in order to cement his value at the hot corner. His .231 batting average on balls in play was the lowest by any Braves position player with at least 100 plate appearances. League average is annually around a .300, so a little more luck could have Ruiz’s BABIP trending closer to the norm and his average on the rise. It’s also worth noting that Ruiz sported the highest ground ball rate (56.3%) and lowest line drive rate (13.4%) of any Braves hitter with at least 150 AB. Both of those numbers were noticeably below his rates at Triple-A, so there is reason to believe he could see improvement in those categories.

Non-roster options:

Christian Colon, 28, signed a minor league deal just before the Winter Meetings and will come to camp hoping to earn a spot on the Atlanta bench. Colon was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2010 June draft by Kansas City. A career .282/.347/.381 minor league hitter, he has big league time with the Royals and Marlins, batting .252 in 386 career plate appearances in four seasons. Colon can play second, short or third and will provide some organizational depth if nothing else… Ray-Patrick Didder, 23, has seen much of his time in the minors in the outfield, but spent some time at both shortstop and second base last season. He has a knack for finding his way on base, relying on hit-by-pitch as one of his methods. However, he batted just .230 (with a .331 OBP) in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League last season. The Aruba native signed with Atlanta in 2013 and cracked Baseball America’s Top 30 Braves prospects in 2016… Sean Kazmar, 33, is the elder statesman among these non-roster invitees. He began his career in 2004 as a 5th round pick by the Padres. A lifetime .258 hitter in 5,300 minor league at-bats, he got a cup of coffee with San Diego in 2008. The versatile Kazmar has become a beloved figure in Triple-A Gwinnett, where he’s spent the last five seasons… Austin Riley, 20, was a competitive balance pick in 2015 and has made a name for himself as a slugging third baseman. A two-way star out of DeSoto Central, Southaven, Mississippi, Riley is among the Braves’ Top 10 prospects after posting back-to-back 20 home run campaigns. Riley is regarded by many as a potential long term answer at third base and could begin the season back at Double-A Mississippi or jump to Triple-A Gwinnett in 2018.

2018 Braves Positional Preview: Catchers

If you’re looking for pleasant surprises on the 2018 Atlanta Braves, then the catching position would be the place to start. The Braves benefited from some unexpectedly potent production last season, and it was generated by a duo of 30-somethings who were each somewhat unheralded free-agent signings. In fact, the two returning Atlanta catchers combined for a 5.2 WAR, the highest at any position on the team according to FanGraphs. Sure, Freddie Freeman was out for a while, but that’s still saying something for this pair of veteran backstops. Let’s take a look.

Tyler Flowers | Age: 32 | Contract Status: 1-year, $4 million

Tyler Flowers was a former Braves farmhand who was dealt to the White Sox in 2008, but returned on a two-year deal prior to 2016. Since, he’s enjoyed two of the most productive years of his career. After posting a 1.1 fWAR in 2016, he followed up with a 2.5 fWAR in 2017. Flowers has slashed .276/.368/.433 in 695 plate appearances with Atlanta after producing a .223/.289/.376 line in 1,395 plate appearances across seven seasons in Chicago. He is playing this season on a team-friendly option and could make a strong case to return if he continues to produce.

A tireless worker, Flowers has spent years improving his defense, particularly his pitch-framing ability. He is widely regarded as one of the best in the business at garnering additional strike calls per game. StatCorner has poured through the F/X data and compiled those called strike numbers for comparison. Flowers’ name annually appears at or near the top of that list. According to that leaderboard, he was better than any catcher in the majors at grabbing extra strikes – 2.56 per game on average – proven across virtually every metric. While not infallible, those numbers are worth perusing (Catching Leaders). Also of note, Flowers’ throwing was much improved in 2017. He caught 23 percent of attempted base-stealers, which is just about league average and up from a paltry 5 percent in 2016.

At the plate, Flowers has enjoyed a renaissance since returning to Atlanta. The work ethic is also on display in the batting cage. His strikeout rate is down, walk rate is up and he is generating hard-hit contact and barreling baseballs with regularity. According to Statcast, Flowers’ 89.4 mph average exit velocity was second on the team to Freddie Freeman (89.6 mph) and good enough for 43rd best in MLB (minimum 200 AB). If recent trends continue, the Braves should be in good hands behind the plate in 2018.

Kurt Suzuki | Age: 34 | Contract Status: 1-year, $3.5 million

Kurt Suzuki had quite the season in 2017. The former All-Star enjoyed a career year in the power department and drew praise for his ability to work with a staff that included an increasing number of young arms as the year wore on. Suzuki’s solid all-around work earned him a one-year, $3.5 million extension that he was able to iron out in-season. All of this after signing just before spring training a year ago.

Suzuki, like many players across the game, saw an uptick in power last season. Despite being part of a platoon, he set a career-high with 19 home runs. Perhaps more impressive is that he did so in just 276 at-bats. That’s the fewest trips to the plate in a season for Suzuki since his rookie year. Those 19 homers were the seventh most among major league catchers, but his .536 slugging percentage was the best among all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.

With Suzuki in tandem with Flowers, the Braves catching duo provided a steady offensive force in the lineup. As mentioned in the open of this article, they combined to provide the single most productive position for the Braves in terms of wins above replacement. In fact, both catchers were also high on the list of individual leaders in that category. Only Freddie Freeman (4.5) and Ender Inciarte (3.0) were ahead of Suzuki (2.7) and Flowers (2.5) in FanGraphs’ version of WAR among the 2017 Braves. Those individual WAR totals also ranked among the top 10 for all major league catchers – Suzuki ranked sixth highest and Flowers checked in at No. 10.

They also held a rather painful distinction of being a magnet for baseballs. Suzuki was plunked 13 times, while Flowers was hit by pitch 20 times. For those scoring at home, those were career-high totals for both men. Combining those totals would have sent the Braves catching duo to the top of yet another leaderboard. Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs led the majors with 24 HBP. So, with 33 HBP, you could say that Atlanta catchers were the real major league leader. Okay, maybe not, but the point is they were hit by more than their fair share of pitches in 2017. That sidebar aside, random chance can’t be counted on annually when it comes to finding one’s way on base.

Down on the farm: Just three short years ago, the Braves were searching for help behind the plate throughout the organization. Atlanta’s rebuild was centered around pitching, but the dearth of catching started at the top and trickled all the way down to the low-level of the minors. That was something that had to change. Fast forward to 2018 and Atlanta has a handful of capable catching prospects in the pipeline.

The Braves traded for former Seattle top pick Alex Jackson and moved him back to his high school position. The returns have been encouraging thus far, with Jackson’s offense turning heads and his work behind the plate garnering generally positive reviews. He should reach Triple-A if that progress continues.

Atlanta signed international free agent William Contreras, a 20-year-old who was an All-Star in the Appalachian League at Danville last season and is the younger brother of Cubs standout Wilson Contreras. Catching must run in the family. The Braves have also drafted some catchers with early picks over the past couple of seasons, taking Lucas Herbert in 2015 and Brett Cumberland in 2016. All of those men have shown promise and give reason to believe that a long term solution could be on the rise in the organization. More on those men in the upcoming Top 30 Braves Prospects for 2018.