Braves recently elected Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones works with infielder Charlie Culberson at spring training during the first full squad workout on Monday, Feb 19, 2018, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista. Jones was helping coach the team for the day. Curtis Compton/
Photo: Compton
Photo: Compton

‘Big-hit’ Charlie Culberson has come home, looks to impact Braves

They know him well in Los Angeles, and some there hated seeing him included in the five-player December trade designed for the Braves to dump Matt Kemp’s contract and for the Dodgers to move four players including three with expiring contracts and big salaries.

Culberson, 28, was the other one they moved, the guy with neither a big salary nor an expiring contract. The guy who hit a couple of really big homers for L.A.

He’s not eligible for arbitration until next winter, giving the Braves four years of contractual control and making it quite possible that Culberson, father of three, a North Georgia native born in Rome and raised in Calhoun, might be living 12 months a year for some time in the Marietta home he and his wife were already buying before he was traded. 

They’ll be about 10 minutes from SunTrust Park.

“I think things lined up pretty nice as far as how things are working out,” Culberson said. “Now we’ve just got to play baseball.”

Culberson looks so much like Braves shortstop and Marietta native Dansby Swanson – hair, beard, size, body type, face – that he estimates he’s already been asked about 20 times whether he is Swanson. 

“I think I’ve got five years and three kids on him,” Culberson said, laughing. “It is funny, though. I’ve gotten it a lot. He’s probably gotten it, too. But I think with him already being here and being a Georgia boy and having the hair and the beard, a lot of people probably just think when I walk in that I’m Dansby. It’s pretty funny. He wears and headband and I don’t wear a headband, so maybe that’s something that’ll separate us.”

Other than being first-round draft picks from Georgia, there is little else about their careers that’s similar. Swanson played three years of college ball and was starting for the Braves at age 22 after playing less than a full season in the minors, while Culberson was in his sixth year of pro ball before he got his first major league call-up at age 23 with the Giants.

After playing parts of five major league seasons with three teams all in the National League West – San Francisco, which drafted him in the first round in 2007, Colorado and L.A. – he’s thrilled to be home and to be on a team where he could see more playing time in the first month or two of the season than he got in the past two seasons combined with the Dodgers.

He’s played mostly shortstop and second base in the majors but has experience at the infield corners and left field. The Braves had him working out just as much at third base as at the middle-infield spots in Monday’s first full-squad workouts.

“With our four-man bench that (versatility) is huge,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Versatility can keep guys around a long time and keep them a part of the team and a big part of the team.”

So can having outstanding reputations as teammates and hard workers, like Culberson does.

Here’s what Snitker learned asking others who’ve coached, managed or played with him about Culberson: “Awesome. Just really good, solid player. Great teammate – and I can tell that talking to him. He’s just a quality guy. Just visited with him in the stadium (SunTrust Park) before we came down here. It was good to get to know him a little bit. Just a pro. He knows his role and he’s going to be a valuable guy for us to have.”

Culberson bounced between the minor leagues enough times in the past five years not to take anything for granted, and said he doesn’t assume anything as far as a spot on the Braves opening-day roster. But team officials have made it clear it would take a surprising development for him not to be one of the Braves’ bench players, his versatility and experience huge pluses for a young team that can use a guy like him to help set the tone.

Culberson has just a .231 average and .595 OPS in 197 games (443 plate appearances) over five major league seasons. He went just 2-for-13 in 15 games for Los Angeles last season – he spent most of the season in Triple-A – after hitting .299 with one very memorable homer and a .697 OPS in 67 at-bats for the Dodgers in 2016.

A first-round draft pick by the Giants out of Calhoun High School in 2007, Culberson was traded to the Rockies in 2012 and signed with the Dodgers as a free agent in 2015.

He and his wife had a house in Smyrna the past four years and brought their growing family out west and on the road as often as he could in the past, but now they won’t have to make nearly so many travel plans.

“We’ve been (living in greater Atlanta) for four years,” he said. “We were in Smyrna, we’re in Marietta now. So we’re right around the corner (from SunTrust). We were actually moving, my oldest is going to kindergarten this fall, and we picked a better area. I got traded and then closed (on a house) a few days later. Yeah, I guess everything happens for a reason.

“We’re looking forward to it but just trying to take it one day at a time and not trying to get ahead of ourselves.”

While the raw numbers of his body of major league work might not look impressive, there have been moments the likes of which many longtime major leaguers have never experienced.

Culberson hit the division-clinching walk-off homer in broadcaster Vince Scully’s final game at Dodger Stadium on Oct. 1, 2016, and he hit a home run in Game 2 of the 2017 World Series against the Astros and went 8-for-18 with four extra-base hits in 10 postseason games. 

He was becoming a regular Big-Hit Charlie for the Dodgers, and new Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who was a Dodgers vice president the past two years, thrilled to bring Culberson home to Georgia in the December Kemp deal.

Anthopoulos was there when Culberson hit the homer in 2016 that didn’t just clinch the West Division title but put the exclamation point on Scully’s final game at Dodger Stadium in the year that was so much about Scully in L.A.

Here was Scully on the call as Culberson, batting with none on and two out in a 3-3 game, connected on a 0-1 pitch from Rockies left-hander Boone Logan and drove it to the seats beyond left field: 

“Oh and 1 to Charlie,” Scully said. “Swung on, a high fly ball to deep left field…. Would you believe a home run? And the Dodgers have clinched the division and will celebrate on schedule!”

As Culberson rounded the bases, well before he got to third base, the familiar first chords of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” blasted from the Dodger Stadium PA system. Culberson heaved his helmet high onto the field halfway between third and home and raced into a move of teammates waiting to attack him in jubilation at the plate, with the bullpen emptying out and relievers jumping on him from behind while the rest of the team got him from the front.

“Leave it to the Dodgers. Charlie Culberson a game-winning home run,” Scully said. “What a moment to have it, and would you believe, his first home run of the year…. And what a guy to do it, Charlie Culberson. Boy did it work out perfectly for the final home game of the regular season.”

In the final road trip of the season to San Francisco, which Scully made after not making many other trips in his final seasons, Culberson was invited to the booth before a game. He talked with Scully, got his picture taken with him, had Scully sign his bat.

Then there was this past postseason, when Culberson came from Triple-A out of necessity and came through in a major way for the Dodgers in their journey that ended with a seven-game World Series loss to the Astros.

He hit a home run in Game 2 of the World Series with his parents and wife and children in the ballpark. Biggest night of his career, Culberson said, even bigger than the homer in Scully’s last Dodger Stadium game.

“Those are different big moments,” Culberson said. “The World Series thing, my parents were there in the stands, my wife and kids. I got excited. But I’m sure not many people have gotten a chance to play in a World Series and hit a home run. I was in Triple-A all season, it was more just me being a kid. I knew we were still down a run, I’m not an idiot. But I did come in late in the game, in the top of the 11th and played left, and then I came in and hit a home run. So it was just exciting times.

“Nah, but both were very special. I was just that lucky person to be at the right place at the right time.”

He was 6-for-12 in the four postseason games he started, three at shortstop and one at second base, and had three hits including a triple in the Dodgers’ 11-1 dismantling of the Cubs in a clinching win in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.

He’s had some big moments, but now Culberson wants to experience the thrill of playing a full major league season and being an impactful player on a regular basis