Braves pitchers and catchers report to spring training Friday, with their first workout scheduled for Saturday. The rest of team has until Feb. 20 to report, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for the next day. This is the first of a five-part series this week previewing the 2019 season.
Baseball’s current climate favors flexibility. Teams see less value in carrying a one-position player for the sake of a single tool. The better franchises are those with options; not just assets for the front office, but pieces for the manager to construct.
The Braves are in an optimal position with their bench. There isn’t much sorting out to do: They’ll carry Johan Camargo and Charlie Culberson to play when and where needed, and whomever of Tyler Flowers or Brian McCann that isn’t catching that day.
Assuming the Braves elect for an eight-man bullpen and four-man bench, that would leave one more spot. Spring training will lack intrigue beyond the pitching battles, but we’ll gain further insight as to how the Braves will use their bench throughout the season.
Ironmen Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis will get more days off in 2019, the Braves insist. That played a part in their pursuit of Josh Donaldson, whose signing bumped Camargo into a utility role. Like the two-time defending National League champion Dodgers, the Braves want to move parts around the board and see less of a dropoff when someone is resting or injured.
MLB season is a 162-game trek. Freak circumstances occur. Unfortunate mishaps strike. It’s crucial to have a deep bench to prevent a cratering blow. The Braves won 90 games a year ago for more reasons than a bad division. They withstood injuries, and their depth helped avoid any lengthy losing spells.
And they’ll hope this bench is even better. On paper, it is.
That’s mostly because of Camargo’s new role. The 25-year-old manned third base last season, but will play around the infield and get some time in the outfield this go-around. He was displaced by Donaldson, the team’s key free-agent acquisition, but understood he’ll still be part of the Braves’ plans.
“I didn’t even think about myself,” Camargo said through an interpreter. “I was thinking about the team.”
Other franchises called about Camargo, whose value transcends any projections while he was a prospect. The Braves turned overtures away. They’re committed to Camargo as a long-term fit – Donaldson presented the best chance to upgrade the offense without expensing prospects.
There’s less to be said about Culberson, a trade throw-in who was pivotal in the Braves’ revival. He’ll pick up where he left off last season, spelling guys on off-days and providing injury insurance. The difference this time is he’ll have Camargo sharing that mantle, which is only a good thing for the Braves.
Kurt Suzuki was a productive catcher. The McCann signing has been met with praise, and he and Flowers will be a suitable pairing. But it’s fair to wonder if losing Suzuki will mean a dip in offensive production from that spot. In 105 games, he hit .271 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs.
Maybe those concerns are mitigated by a healthy McCann, who hit 18 homers with 62 RBIs in 2017. Still, it’s not a sure thing, and Suzuki was an underrated contributor to the Braves’ success.
The last bench spot could go to Adam Duvall, who has a roster spot and about $2.9 million on the line this spring. His brief Braves tenure last season was disastrous, but they gave him the benefit of the doubt and will see how he reacts later this month.
Austin Riley likely won’t make the team out of camp, but the eventual promotion of the top third-base prospect could play a role here. He’ll also work in the outfield this spring. His debut could be necessitated by injury, which makes him worth mentioning as a depth component.
The Braves acquired Ryan Flaherty and Peter Bourjos to fill out their bench before last opening day. It’s entirely possible a similar scenario unfolds here, and the team’s last man on the bench comes from another organization. Also, veteran utility players Pedro Florimon and Andres Blanco will be in big-league camp with non-roster invitations.
Regardless, the bench’s evaluation will make or break with Camargo and Culberson.