Braves preview: Georgian catching duo’s impact will exceed numbers

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 second of a five-part series this week previewing the 2019 season.

The Braves will have an unfamiliar duo of familiar names at catcher in 2019.

Tyler Flowers signed a one-year extension last season, shifting conversation toward who he would share backstop duties with the following year – a season in which the Braves are expected to be good rather than catching the world by surprise.

Fan-favorite Brian McCann was the answer. He took less money to return to the Braves, where he played from 2005-13, and split time with fellow Georgian Tyler Flowers. It’s a nice story that’s generated plenty of positive PR, but the Braves are crossing their fingers for bigger dividends.

After departing his hometown club, McCann spent three seasons with the Yankees before he was traded to Houston. He hit .241 with 18 homers for the world champs in 2017, being lauded as a crucial part of their clubhouse culture.

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Last season wasn’t as thrilling: McCann was limited to 216 plate appearances. He required knee surgery during the season. It impeded his offensive production, posting career-lows in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage while playing in his fewest games since his rookie year.

McCann and the Braves are confident he’s beyond those health woes and can recapture some of his first-year Astros form. He’s an ideal fit with Flowers, given that he’s better against righties while Flowers is at his best against lefties, and also simply in how the two function. 

The Braves invested their retool in pitching. As the youngsters develop, they see McCann and Flowers as the perfect teachers, able to curate an environment that’ll support the barrage of sub-25-year-olds figuring out the majors as their employer vies for the postseason.

Flowers is a solid defensive catcher and grades among the league’s best in pitch framing. McCann’s advanced catching metrics are declining, though he grades better than Kurt Suzuki, whom he replaced.

Suzuki’s offensive production, however, shouldn’t be overlooked. He had somewhat a renaissance with the Braves, hitting .276/.341/.485 with 31 homers and 100 RBIs across the past two seasons. It became clear early in the winter the Braves and Suzuki likely were parting ways, and the backstop signed up for his second tenure with the rival Nationals.

Flowers hit .227/.341/.359 with eight homers last season as he distanced himself from offseason surgery on his forearm and wrist. He had a stronger season the year before, hitting .281 with a .823 OPS.

Depth-wise, offseason pickup Raffy Lopez and minor leaguer Alex Jackson are the other catchers on the 40-man. The team added Lopez simply for organizational depth beyond the unproven Jackson. Last season, the team was forced to find stopgaps such as Chris Stewart, Carlos Perez and Rene Rivera because of its lacking internal options.

William Contreras, who’ll be in big-league camp this spring, might be the franchise’s future at that spot. Rumors ran rampant connecting the Braves with J.T. Realmuto most of winter before he was traded to Philadelphia, but the Braves balked at Miami’s asking price and were comfortable with their veterans.

Contreras probably won’t debut this season, and the Braves aren’t in a rush. Catching situations are bleak throughout the majors. They feel they have among the better situations: Two well-received veterans with a top prospect on the way.

Age and health will be understandable question marks, and perhaps the overall offensive output won’t be replicated (though at full strength, McCann could minimize the loss there). Even if there’s a collective offensive decline, the Braves are happy with their situation on-and-off the field with the Flowers-McCann pairing. Their most important impacts won’t be found on Baseball Reference.

Part 1: The bench

Part 2: The catchers

Part 3: The infield

Part 4: The outfield

Part 5: The pitching staff

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