Injuries to Braves catchers creating early season concern

ATLANTA — It goes without saying that two games into a Major League Baseball season is too soon to hit any kind of panic button. But the Atlanta Braves have been dealt an early blow behind the plate.

And it’s a blow that will also be felt in the middle of the lineup.

Veteran catchers Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki were each forced from their first starts of the season. It started on Opening Day, when Flowers was lost to an oblique strain suffered in his first at-bat. That landed him on the 10-day disabled list. Then the following night, Suzuki was hit by pitch in the right palm and made an early exit.

While the team is hopeful Suzuki will only miss a few days, there is no timetable for Flowers’ return. Oblique injuries vary by case and severity, but typically take a few weeks to heal and can be a lingering problem if not handled properly.

“I’ve had teammates over the years try and rush it to get back and they end up dealing with it for an entire season, so I definitely don’t plan on doing that,” Flowers said of his first bout with an oblique issue. “I think we’ll be as aggressive as we can be. I don’t want this to turn into multiple months when it could be something significantly shorter if we kind of take our time throughout the process.”

The Braves’ veteran catchers were two of their most productive players last season. The duo combined for 31 home runs and a team-leading 5.2 WAR between them in 2017. The absence of one, or both men, will have a direct effect on the bottom line of production in the Atlanta lineup, which was already light on power entering the season.

Outside of Freddie Freeman, the Braves entered this season without a single hitter that surpassed the 20-home run plateau in 2017 and only one man, Nick Markakis, who’d ever done so at any point in his big league career. However, the last time he did so was 2008.

As the club is currently constructed, Markakis remains one of the men who will be most heavily depended upon in the middle of the order. He delivered a game-winning homer in the season opener and logged the most at-bats with runners on base of any Atlanta hitter in 2017.

“Nick had a really good spring, worked his tail off,” said manager Brian Snitker. “He’s a guy that I trust every night. He’s going to show up and give you everything he has. He’s been through the wars and it makes him the pro that he is.”

The Braves will need more from the middle and bottom of the order, however.

The team stands to get a power boost from top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. at some point, but that can hardly be counted on to solve all the lineup’s needs. Without Flowers and Suzuki for any length of time and with third base still not settled, there are currently a few more questions than answers in the Atlanta lineup.

Then there’s the effect the loss of Flowers and Suzuki could have behind the plate and with the pitching staff, which must forge new partnerships with different battery mates. Both men received high praise from Braves pitchers last season. But now the staff will be entering some unfamiliar territory of sorts.

Flowers recognized as much when talking to reporters after being placed on the disabled list.

“To go through all spring and develop those relationships working together and all the time you spend down there to prepare for that game and everything, you know it’s tough,” said Flowers. “Now just be patient, work hard and try and get back.”

Veteran Chris Stewart signed early in the spring and will be the first man to get a chance for playing time with Flowers on the DL. An MRI showed no broken bones in Suzuki’s right hand. so he could be back sometime early next week. Should he require a quick trip to the disabled list, things may get a little dicier behind the plate for a while.

Stewart made his first start for Atlanta in Saturday’s 15-2 win over the Philadelphai Phillies. He went 2-for-4 with two RBI and two runs scored. The 36-year-old is beginning his 12th big league season and has carved a solid niche as a capable back-up catcher. He’ll be relied upon more heavily in the weeks to come, however.

“His catch-release, the way be blocks, you know he’s been around for a long time, so he knows how to call a game too,” Snitker said of Stewart’s skill set following Saturday’s game. “He’s good for our pitchers and it’s just nice to see him contribute with the bat.”

In order to create some depth at the position, Atlanta swung a trade with the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday, acquirng catcher Carlos Perez in exchange for infielder Ryan Schimpf. Perez, 27, owns a .224/.267/.332 slash line in 184 games with the Angels over the last three seasons, but played just 11 big league games with L.A. in 2017. He was designated for assignment when the Angels added Shohei Ohtani to the Opening Day roster.

Perez will join the Braves in time for their series opener against the Washington Nationals on Monday and figures to serve as Atlanta’s third catcher for the time being with Flowers on the DL. If Suzuki is forced to join him there, the addition of Perez could loom larger.

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