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Talking Chop Round Table: Braves Catchers

As part of season reviews for major league players and top prospect ranking for minor league players, we here at Talking Chop thought it would be a fun idea to get all of our bloggers together with the help of Google Docs and debate the various aspects of each position in the Braves organization.

The participants are, yours truly (gondeee, indicated by MG), yondaime4 (indicated by MF), royhobbs (indicated by DH), and cbwilk (indicated by CBW).

I thought we'd have a few quick questions with some short responses, but apparently I underestimated the verbosity of my fellow bloggers, and this thing turned into an opus. But while it is quite long, it is an interesting discussion about the Braves catching situation in both the majors and the minors. If you have anything to add please feel free to post a comment... but please, keep it short.

MGMy assertion is that Brian McCann is the team's MVP, is there any doubt about that?
CBW: Not to me. You made a great point in your writeup that guys like LaRoche, Prado, and Diaz just didn't have enough at bats to really qualify, though I do think LaRoche, even in half a year should get some consideration. I still can't understand the logic of him batting 7th every game. It's been remarked that the face of the team has transfered from Chipper to Mac, and I think after this year that's pretty obvious. He led the team in most of the important categories and really is the backbone. It's nice too that he's a lot like Chipper in his leadership style; he lets his play speak for him.
MF: Yeah I can't make an argument for anyone else. Not a solid one anyways. McCann led all qualified NL catchers in OPS (and that wasn't close) and was behind only Mauer in the MLB (not counting V-Mart who played about half his games at 1B). The only thing that detracts for me is his second half slide which I think can be attributed to Chipper not being as big a threat in front of him and not getting the pitches to hit. For me it really comes down to is Chipper as the first half MVP, Laroche as the 2nd half guy and then McCann for the long haul.
DH:  As much as I love Brian McCann, he is certainly high up on the list, but I don't think I can really say he's the team's MVP.  A particular trend I've visually observed the last few years, and that's towards the end of the years, he begins to fade.  Whether it is fatigue caused by how much he plays or just his physical stamina overall, the amount of times he simply begins to get under baseballs and pop up and out seems much higher in Septembers and Octobers than it does in earlier months in a season.  The only statistic that can support this claim is that his overall OPS seems to drop somewhat throughout all Septembers of his career (still a respectable .805).  McCann is certainly the future of the franchise, and is no doubt an outstanding player and citizen, but his penchant for fading down the stretch is a bit of a concern for me.  However, all this being said, I can still confidently claim that he's still the most talented catcher in the National League.

And it continues after the jump...

CBW: I've been of the opinion for a while that he's the best catcher in baseball. He's obviously got the National League wrapped up, Geovanny Soto came back to earth (who didn't see that coming?), Yadier Molina is an outstanding defensive catcher but that's about it, and Russell Martin fell off the edge of the earth, but I'm not so sure he isn't better than Mauer. Obviously Mauer's 2009 was insane, but if you look at last year, McCann had him beat all over. Looking at their careers, per 162 games Mauer averages a .327 avg, .891 OPS, with 17 HR and 92 RBI, compared to McCann averaging .293, .852 OPS, with 24 HR and 103 RBI. Since 2005 the AL's OPS averages about .013 points higher than the NL, so Mauer's .039 point career lead over McCann is still very impressive, but a little less so. Another thing to keep in mind with Mauer is the DH. Over his career, he's played about half a season's worth of games as a DH, compiling a .331 avg and .887 OPS in those games. A fifth of his plate appearances this season came as a DH. I don't think there's any way to quantify it, but there's no question that gives Mauer an advantage that McCann just doesn't have.
DH:  "J" Russell Martin.  Totally makes sense.  I love McCann to death, and I'll argue tooth and nail that he's the best in the National League, but I have to give the nod to Mauer as the best in the Majors.  He has plenty of advantages that work in his favor, mostly from playing in the AL, and unless he one day migrates over into the NL, we'll never have a true comparison.  Due to the capability for him to DH every now and then, it saves some wear on his body while keeping his bat in the lineup, and also keeps his AB total from dipping below batting title qualifications, which is pretty much what kept McCann from getting his own in 2006.  Whether or not this reprieve from catching duties saves that much toll, Mauer also has not demonstrated the aforementioned September slow down that McCann seems to suffer each year.  McCann certainly has a fine swing, but there's a reason why some teams are beginning to employ the shift on him; he's beginning to peg himself as somewhat of a pull-hitter.  Mauer is definitely better at utilizing the entire feels, and is indicative by the fact that he has more hits to the left side of the field than he does pulling the ball throughout his entire career.  As I said, I don't mean to knock McCann by any stretch of the imagination, but I don't think it's necessarily fair to bring Mauer down because of the luxury of the silly rules of the league he plays in; I think he'd probably be just as successful if he were a National League catcher.
MF: I'll just throw my two cents worth in here. I was using my favorite tool on ESPN to check the statistical validity of these arguments: the three year splits. Right now their three years are only from 2006-2008 but that actually works well for this. Coming in the 2009 season McCann had a three year OPS of .873 and Mauer was at .874. Obviously it doesn't get much closer than that. What is interesting is how differently they were getting there. Mauer had the high AVG and lots of walks whereas Brian was doing it with twice as many homers and 30 more doubles in that span. In the past would I have argued hard that McCann was the best catcher in baseball and that Mauer (despite the batting titles) was still living off of his prospect status. This season is what sets this all off though as Mauer finally closed the gap on power (and then some, in less than a full season). And what eventually tips the scales further is that Mauer is probably a better defender. I think right now in their primes Mauer is the guy you have to take but when their careers are settled I wouldn't be surprised to see a narrower gap than most people thought existed.
CBW: I like that take on things. My only further argument would be that Mauer is a year older than McCann, so if this year is what's setting him apart, it'd be nice to see if McCann can close that gap next season.

MG Is David Ross the best backup catcher the Braves have ever had, when one considers hitting, fielding, and throwing out baserunners?
CBW: I think it's easy to believe that after how bad it's been the last few years, but the Braves have actually had some outstanding backups in their recent history. You look at Charlie O'Brien in 94 and 95 and he was a great at Maddux's personal catcher, combining for a .766 OPS in those two years. His average was low, but he had a ton of pop and was one of the better defensive catchers around. With Maddux on the mound nearly every time out, it's going to be hard to throw somebody out, so it's not really fair to compare Ross to guys who mostly had this issue. For me, the best backup catcher in Braves history is going to be Eddie Perez. His 9 years in Atlanta weren't spectacular, he hit .251 with a .691 OPS, but he was, like O'Brien, a very good defensive catcher and he added a lot of intangibles to the team. As far as a comparison to Ross, well, Ross has only had one season. Take a look at Perez's 1998: 61 G, 149 AB, .336 AVG, .941 OPS. That's way better than what Ross put up this year.
MF: Ross certainly had the best season ever by a Braves backup catcher. At least in recent memory. When you think about it he and McCann combined for 44 2B, 28 HR and 114 RBI. Without running the numbers I am sure the only team whose catchers combined for anywhere close to that was Minnesota. Yeah Ross had a really good year.  Its not like he came into this year and just exploded either, the guy posted a .932 OPS in 2006 on top of 21 HRs. I am ecstatic that we have him for one more season.
CBW: Ross certainly had an outstanding 2009, but come on, it wasn't better than Perez's 1998.
MF: The raw offensive statistics were better sure, but I would say Ross's season was more valuable considering the offensive context (the Braves hit 215 HRs that season). So I guess depending on what we are saying as the "Best" you could take either one. I think I'll take Ross's. Just barely.
CBW: Fair enough. I'm still with Perez, but I like your reasoning. So, as far as gondeee's question, would you take Perez as the best Braves' backup catcher all time?
MF: Yeah I'll take Perez. He was great in the clubhouse and he was solid offensively and great defensively for a long time. You can't ask for much more than that out of a backup catcher.
DH:  Late to the party, but I cannot argue the rationale behind Perez being the best backup catcher.  I think a good amount of people would be willing to christen Ross as the best backup ever, but consider the short term memory of people remembering Brayan Pena and Corky Miller, and they're going to think Ross is Jorge Posada with the stick.
CBW: I still think getting rid of Brayan Pena was a mistake. Sure, he was replaced by Norton, who was fantastic last year, but he had all the potential to be a solid extra bat off the bench. He was working on playing first base and third base, so he could have added some versatility. The guy's attitude and hustle are just things you can't have enough of.
DH:  I don't know why Miller was given the nod over Pena as the backup, especially after the "heart-warming" story that SI did about Escobar and Pena growing up wishing to be Braves, but as ludicrous as it sounds, it almost felt like Pena was the odd man out for being better than Corky.  Like a backup catcher has to be only so good enough to warrant a backup status.
MG:  I'd like to see the Braves carry three catchers next year, with Clint Sammons, and use Ross more as a pinch hitter and a power bat off the bench -- he might be better than much of what we got off the bench this year.
CBW: I like that idea and you'd have to think it could only help Ross for the days he does play by getting more regular at bats. When you have a guy that good, finding ways to get him in the lineup can only lead to good stuff. He had a terrible year and should be a candidate in any way, but a guy like Robby Hammock, who could also be used at 1B, 3B, and LF if necessary, but is also a great catcher, would be, to me anyway, a little more desireable for something like this someone like Sammons, who can only catch.
MF: You have to think giving ABs to Ross instead of some of the guys we were running out there the first half of the season would have been a much better use of our resources.
DH:  Just remembered another name - Todd Pratt.  David Ross was way better than him, too.  At this point, there's such a long list of names that were more deserving of ABs than Greg Norton, that it's almost a moot point given that hind-sight's a harsh mistress.
CBW: He was also much, much better than Henry Blanco and Paul Bako. I think we've covered all the backups for the last 15 years now, and with the exception of that one season by Perez, Ross is hands down better.

MGComing into the season I thought the Braves had some good, although low level, minor league catching depth, but I think this year proved it's not quite as good as many had thought. Guys like Schlehuber and Elorriaga-Matra, who I had high hopes for, took a real step backwards.
CBW: There really isn't anything at the upper levels to be excited about. Jose Camarena is a fine AA player, as a backup, but that's about it. And guys like Alvin Colina and JC Boscan are necessary, but they're not prospects. I'm still fairly excited about our lower level catching, because I have a ton of faith in Bethancourt and Kennelly, but yes, Schlehuber and Elorriaga-Matra kind of knocked themselves off the prospect radar. Elorriaga-Matra is an outstanding defensive catcher, but his OPS, in a starting role, was .394. That's not going to get you anywhere. He'll be 21 next year, so he'll already be a bit old for Rome, if he can even make their roster. Schlehuber was 21 this year at Rome, so he was a bit old, and he didn't fare much better, rocking a sturdy .596 OPS. He's also a good defensive catcher, but he's going to have to repeat the level, and even if he fares well, he'll be way too old for the league.
MF: I am still not giving up on Schlehuber. I can't really say why, but I just think he is going to rebound next season. I still think he might be the most physically gifted catcher we have in the minors right now and he would put those gifts on show about once a month and then they would disappear. I would also point out that he did have a better ISOP than Kennelly had at either MB or Rome (BS: .109 vs MK: .063) and he had a fairly normal LD% at 13% to go along with a crazy low BABIP of .227. That's not to say he is going to be great,  but there are some good indicators there and a lot of times your first full season can be a throw away. Maybe he should have started in Danville? I don't know, but I do know if he had gotten 500 ABs he would have had 35 ish doubles and nearly double digit homers. What has happened to Daniel Matra? (Yeah I'm not spelling that) This guy was primed to have a bust out year after seeing his draft stock drop hard after his JR season of high school. But he is still only 20 years old (not 21 till the end of December) and has time to grow and learn. And lets not forget that Kennelly has yet to really blow anyone's socks off offensively at any level.
CBW: You point about Kennelly here is dead on, but I think taking into account the severe difference between the levels of amateur play in Australia and the US is important. Kennelly wasn't really playing anyone, while Elorriaga-Matra was good enough to make the 18 and under USA team. DEM is getting a little old and really hasn't shown any level of success. It's a shame, he's a likeable guy and I was amazed with his defensive ability. Maybe he'll be able to hit enough to stick around for a while and maybe eek out a backup job in the Majors in his late 20s. I'm kind of curious why you feel Schlehuber is so physically gifted. I didn't see much that made me think he was any more of an impressive athlete than Bethancourt or Kennelly or even DEM or Benji Johnson.
MF: I was going more off the fact that he was able to steal a few bases in college and even some in the pros and that he has flashed a bit of a power stroke. Maybe I was stretching a bit on the most physically gifted but I still think he has good tools. Obviously you have seen these guys and may have caught something that I can't being stuck in the mountains of WV, but I just think there is a kernel of talent buried deep, deep in his numbers. And you are right about Kennelly having only played in Aussie leagues, but I don't think Kennelly is that old. Still just 20 and he will be in his 21 season next year. Catchers don't have a normal growth curve because a lot of times one skill has to catch up with the other. I'm not going to put money on either Schlehuber or DEM, but I'm not quite sold out on them yet.
CBW: Did I say Kennelly was old at one point? If I did I didn't mean to; to me he's right on track. I've definitely got more hope for Schlehuber than DEM. Schlehuber is still going to be old for his league, and he just seems like he profiles as more of a backup to me, but you're right, there's something there to be hopeful about.
MF: No I don't think you did, I just got crossed up with the text in there.

MG It seems like our non-drafted minor league catchers are really the best of the bunch, Bethancourt and Kennelly.
CBW: Just looking at the other lists, it's pretty rare that we're going to be uniamous on many selections, but we all had Bethancourt 1 and Kennelly 2. After finally getting to see Bethancourt this year in Spring Training, I became a believer and a huge fan. He's a big, solid kid, but isn't bulky like a guy like Tyler Flowers, so you can see him staying behind the plate. His defense is good and had a surprising season for a 17 year old. You have to believe if he has a good ST this year, he's in line to go to Rome as an 18 year old, and if he can put up another fine season, that's really going to be saying something. Kennelly's season was a little unfair, in that he played so well in ST that they decided to clear the logjam at Rome by rushing him up to Myrtle Beach. He wasn't ready for it and it showed. He rebounded a little after moving back to Rome, but at that point there are a lot of mental factors, a half season of failure, a demotion, that lead to a severe knock in confidence. But, I have a lot of faith in the kid, he's a great defensive catcher and his mental approach to the game is fantastic. Pitchers love working with him because he's so supportive and talkative. He'll be 21 in a return to Myrtle Beach, so that's about the right age and most Australians develop slowly anyway. Another undrafted guy, Jesus Sucre comes in at number 3 for us, and he's a guy worth keeping an eye on. He's also an outstanding defender and he's got a thick, wide body that makes for the kind of target pitchers love to throw to. He hit for a little power with Myrtle Beach, but I doubt he's ever going to really be much of a power threat. He'll be 22 early in next season, and he played well enought that it seems like he might start the year at Mississippi, though that might be a little more than he's ready to handle as a hitter. I'd say prospect-wise he's a good distance after Bethancourt and Kennelly, but he's also much closer to being a finished product, since he really projects as a backup catcher all the way.
MF: I really liked Kennelly a lot coming into this season and I think he will get looked over by many folks because of his performance at Myrtle Beach when he shouldn't have been there. In a perfect world Kennelly starts at Rome and Schlehuber at Myrtle Beach, but obviously that wasn't going to happen. Scouts praise his leadership skills and how quickly he can make adjustments and improve himself. He has a solid body and is expected to develop some power as he makes more adjustments. Remember, we signed this kid out of Australia at 16 years old and he is just now 20. Bethancourt has the potential to be a stud in a couple years, if he isn't already one. For a guy so young he already is showing an advanced feel at the plate and behind it. The problem with having both of these guys is we have the second best catcher in baseball blocking them both. Both guys are going to need at least 2 more, if not 3, years in the minors to really get developed, and while McCann's contract will be up its hard to imagine the Braves not doing everything they can to resign him. And then we are back where we were with Flowers and Salty.
CBW: Great points about Kennelly's leadership and ability to make adjustments. Those are definitely things you keep hearing about the guy. I don't know if I'm entirely worried about some kind of future logjam, if only because that's something I rarely worry about. Frankly, very few prospects actually pan out, so if it comes to a point where you've got both Bethancourt and Kennelly ready to go, and McCann still dominating in the Majors, that's a fantastic problem to have, especially since quality catching is so incredibly rare. Hey, we turned Salty into a great season's worth of Mark Teixera and Flowers into at least a great season's worth of Javy Vazquez, so depth is nothing to sneeze at. Anyway, I think it's still at least three and a half to four years before these guys are really ready to be Major Leaguers, assuming they develop well. By then, you're talking about McCann being a 30, 31 year old catcher. I've always seen him as a guy who might end up having to shift to first base, so who knows, by then, if say Bethancourt, who'll only be 22, is a stud prospect ready for a spot, it might be time to make that switch.

CBW: Since, he's the only guy on the list we haven't talked about, how do you guys feel about Benji Johnson? For me, he just sneaks onto the end of the list because I have more faith in his future than Elorriaga-Matra's. He's always been a little old for his league, but he's never really played all that well. One thing you can see is that he's always been a backup, so it's hard to even compare him to Clint Sammons, a guy who was always a little old, but was definitely being groomed as a backup.
MF: Hah, I was amazed it took us this long to bring up Johnson. I don't really know much about Johnson honestly, but out of the guys we have talked about not named Clint Sammons, I think Johnson's total package is the most advanced, but I think long term and short term there just isn't any room for him. It looks like he has a little pop in his bat, but he really just doesn't have anything going for him other than that, and even that isn't a +tool. I know we are talking backups here, but unless his defense is better than Clint Sammons (which is going to be difficult) I can't really justify ever using an MLB roster spot for anything other than emergency purposes.
CBW: Good call. I dont' think his defense is really close to Sammy's. Clint is one of the best defensive catchers I've ever seen in the minor leagues.

CBW: Speaking of Sammons, he probably could still qualify for a prospect list, since he doesn't even have 70 at bats in the bigs (I was shocked he only got in 6 games this season), but none of us thought of him. Martin suggests keeping him as an extreme backup in 2010, so, to that point, do we all kind of feel like that's about his ceiling, a mitt with legs?
MG:  I always thought he had a decent bat, but it seems to have eroded as he's moved up the ladder. I was lobbying for him over Corky last year since with Clint at least we get the hope that the offense will improve, being that he is young and can still be molded, and the glove would not have suffered at all. It's hard to say why one becomes a cheerleader for certain players, but I think way more of Sammons than I probably should, and I'm not ashamed of that.
CBW: I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Personally, he's one of my favorite guys in the organization. I've seen him play at every level and he's one of the nicest, most down to earth guys you'd ever want to meet. And, it doesn't hurt that his defense is just spectacular. If nothing else, Sammons is a good example of how good catchers, despite their hitting ability, can stick around.

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