Culberson was a utility player as the Braves rose to prominence. He hit .270 with a career-best .792 OPS in 2018, when the Braves surprisingly won 90 games and the first of what’s now five consecutive National League East titles. He was beloved by fans, teammates and manager Brian Snitker for his selflessness, kindness and work ethic.
As the Braves accumulated more depth, and Culberson offered little offensively, the team moved on. He spent the past two seasons with the Rangers, appearing in 158 games. He hit .246 with a .665 OPS while playing around the infield and outfield over that stretch.
Culberson signed a minor-league deal with Tampa Bay entering spring training, but he didn’t make the roster and the team granted him his release. He signed with the Braves on Tuesday.
“(The Rays) told me middle of last week that I wasn’t going to make the team,” Culberson said. “Too many guys. I enjoyed my time there. Great people, great organization. But I came home, it took me a few days to figure things out and what direction I want to go in. Then the Braves just happened, and it kind of made sense with not much around the league right now. So here I am.”
Culberson has already felt the warm welcome from Braves fans.
“Braves fans were unbelievable; they’ve always been great to me and my family,” he said. “I’ve had some pretty cool moments there. People started texting me and calling me before it was even announced. … It’s exciting to come back home and get another chance here. It’s pretty neat. So not only am I playing for myself, I’m able to play for my family and friends and every other fan out there that roots for me.”
The Braves have crowded infield depth on their 40-man roster. They have two prospects in Triple-A – Vaughn Grissom and Braden Shewmake – who are eagerly awaiting an opportunity. Culberson might never return to the Braves or even majors, but he’s thankful for the chance to rejoin the organization nonetheless.
“At the end of the day, getting the chance to play is the biggest thing,” he said. “It would be really special (if I was called up) for me, my family, a lot of other people if I could get back up and help them out. But I can’t worry about that. I’m here playing and I’d like to get back to the big leagues. That’s everyone’s ultimate goal, just to play in the big leagues as long as they can. If that’s with the Braves, great. If it’s with somebody else, that’s how it’s going to be. So just try not to worry about that. Just worry about today and have fun.”
Culberson has spent a decade in the majors with five different teams. His career highlight likely came in 2016, when his walk-off homer clinched the NL West for the Dodgers in legendary announcer Vin Scully’s final home game.
He’ll try to make more memories this season. He feels his ability to still help a team is what keeps him going as he tries to extend his career.
“Knowing that I can (is what makes me keep going,” Culberson said. “I’m still healthy. Physically, I feel good. Mentally, I’m there too. And I have a lot of people who’ve supported me along the way that enjoy watching me play. I have kids now. My little boy’s playing baseball and at spring training we had the same number and same walk-up song. So little things like that. Things change. When I told them I was coming back to the Braves and starting in Gwinnett – they didn’t really care who I’m playing for. They know that dad’s home half the time right now. That’s special for me, and knowing that I can still do that. For them to come to the park sometimes and watch me.
“Motivation changed for the better as you get older. This is great. Being able to still hit, still field, still compete. That’s the biggest thing I’m excited about.”
The Gwinnett Stripers opened their season Friday against the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. Other notable players on Gwinnett’s roster include starters Ian Anderson, Bryce Elder and Mike Soroka, infielders Shewmake and Grissom, and outfielders Jordan Luplow and Eli White.