They’d loaded up on arms. They’d mixed in some bats and gloves. The one thing the Atlanta Braves hadn’t found, either via the draft or trades, was their catcher of the future. They may have found him Monday night.
Shea Langeliers, author of an 11-RBI game in the NCAA tournament’s L.A. Regional over the weekend, was claimed by the Braves with the ninth overall pick of the 2019 draft. “It’s a long-term investment,” said Dana Brown, the team’s director of scouting, which wasn’t to suggest that Langeliers would be a long-term project. Said Brown: “We think we can get him here quick.”
Know how long it has been since the Braves began a draft with a Round 1 collegiate position player? Since 1991, which was — pause for emphasis — John Schuerholz’s first draft since arriving from Kansas City. The Braves took Mike Kelly, an Arizona State center fielder, No. 2 overall. Kelly didn’t pan out, which might be why it took this club 28 years to spend another first pick on a collegian who isn’t a pitcher.
Thus did the Braves’ first draft since the dismissal of scouting director Brian Bridges — whose credo was, “Keep banging those arms” — didn’t begin with a pitcher. This draft class is thought to be weak in pitching, a feeling borne out by the first six picks passing without an arm being snagged. And you couldn’t call Langeliers a raging reach at No. 9; MLB Pipeline rated him the 10th-best player available, ESPN’s Keith Law the 12th-best. This seems one of those blessed occasions when need meets opportunity.
The Braves’ big-league catchers are Tyler Flowers and Brian McCann, who are a collective 68 years of age at a position where guys age fast. The best catcher in the farm system is William Contreras, who has been in the chain since 2015 and is still laboring with the Florida Fire Frogs in High-A, which would not seem the fastest of tracks. The Braves have hope for Contreras, whose older brother Willson is the Cubs’ starting catcher, but hope isn’t necessarily a plan. Taking a catcher with the No. 9 is absolutely a plan.
Brown again: “(Langeliers) could be on the fast track. He’s a big-time catcher with power. It’s a nice package.”
About those 11 RBIs (with three home runs) against Nebraska Omaha on Saturday: The Braves weren’t overly thrilled at the timing. “We started to worry,” Brown said. “We thought he’d played his way into a higher pick.” But he hadn’t. He was still there at No. 9, and now, if the Braves don’t bungle the negotiation – the memory of Carter Stewart, last year’s No. 8 overall pick, spurning what he deemed a lowball offer is still jagged – they’ll have their man.
In a backhanded way, the Braves have Stewart — who filed a grievance against the Braves that an arbitrator dismissed — to thank for Langeliers. This No. 9 pick was compensation for Stewart’s refusal to sign, and there’s recent precedent for the mulligan turning out better than the first try. In 2013, Houston took pitcher Mark Appel No. 1 overall. He declined to sign. He never made it to the majors. He’s now out of baseball. The Astros’ compensatory pick in 2014 was third baseman Alex Bregman, now a cornerstone on one of MLB’s best teams.
Back to Brown for more raves: “Plus-plus arm, plus-plus defense, high IQ, big-time makeup.”
The Braves’ second Round 1 pick was likewise — stop the presses! — not a pitcher. At No. 21, they took Braden Shewmake, a shortstop from Texas A&M. This might have been a tiny reach. Some observers feel Shewmake is more a second baseman than a shortstop. Even Brown conceded, “He might be a utility guy.”
Still, the Braves like Shewmake. “He has a high upside based on his wiry frame,” Brown said. Then, again: “It’s a nice package.”
Tone-wise, the Braves’ two Round 1 picks — and the Round 2 selection of Oregon State infielder Beau Philip — sounded a much different tone than the four drafts just past. The Braves tailored their rebuild around pitching. It’s possible they feel they have enough pitching, though nobody in baseball believes there’s such a thing as enough pitching. More likely, this was a reflection of the Class of ’19. Said Brown: “The strength of this draft was college position players.”
On Monday, the Braves took three of those, Langeliers being the one that matters most. At some point, the good young Braves had to have a good young catcher to complete their restoration. That box might just have been ticked.
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