The Braves have managed to hit the lottery now twice in the catcher bargain bin with first Tyler Flowers in 2016 and more recently with Kurt Suzuki last season. Both guys just had the best season of their careers in 2017 and are on pace to have another fantastic year as a duo in 2018. Which leads to the question, what kind of money is it going to take to re-sign these guys in the near future and will the Braves even try to do so?
First, let’s begin with Tyler Flowers who came to the Braves back in 2016 after spending seven seasons with the White Sox. Flowers came in as a catcher with a reputation for mediocre-to-awful offensive output, but also with the reputation of being a solid defender. Enter 2016. Flowers introduces a leg-kick into his swing and immediately has the best offensive season of his career with a .357 on-base percentage and a 110 wRC+. Still nothing special. Then comes last season where Flowers continued to progress offensively at the ripe age of 31 and hit to the tune of a .378 on-base percentage and a 120 wRC+. This paired with his already good defense behind the plate led him to post a season worth 2.5 fWAR. Now even in 2018 Flowers is still making strides even if they aren’t reflecting in his wRC+ just yet as he has lowered his strikeout rate to an all-time low of 23.6% and raised his walk rate to 12.2% after having a career average of 7.6%.
Flowers continues to be a premier defender as well behind the plate according to Baseball Prospectus. Flowers has ranked 22nd in 2016, 3rd in 2017 and 10th this season in FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) which is basically a defensive metric that combines a catcher’s runs saved framing behind the plate, throwing to bases, and blocking balls in the dirt. In 2016 Flowers FRAA was 6.5 which he vastly improved to 29.5 last season and is working on this season at 5.2 in just 40 games played. This puts Flowers in a select grouping of catchers who can play top notch defense and are not too shabby on offense either.
Let’s talk dollars and cents in what looks to be a tight free agent class of backstops this offseason. According to Fangraphs’ projections Tyler Flowers would’ve been worth $8.5 million dollars in 2016, $19.9M in 2017 and $5.9M so far in 2018. In actuality Flowers has made $2 million in 2016, $3 million last season and will make $4 million this season after the team picked up their option on his deal signed in 2016 which expires at the end of this season.
Now, it is time to take a look at Kurt Suzuki who has been downright unbelievable in his own right since coming to Atlanta last season. Suzuki also came to the Braves as a catcher with a reputation for being not so offensively gifted and really not as defensively gifted as Flowers when he signed. So naturally, what does he do in 2017? Oh, just hit the most home runs he ever has in a single season with 19 and post a wRC+ of 129 in just 81 games played, nothing really. On a more serious note Suzuki was other-worldly last season and no one really thought he could repeat it this season, and to an extent he hasn’t replicated the greatness of last season to a tee, but Suzuki has been solid in 2018 over 63 games played with a 117 wRC+.
Defensively it is another story as Suzuki is having one of the roughest seasons of his career. In the same FRAA metric from Baseball Prospectus that ranks Tyler Flowers so highly, Kurt Suzuki has ranked 30th in 2017 and 64th so far this season out of 98 catchers rated with FRAAs of 1.9 and -0.6 respectively. At 34-years-old this is should be no surprise either as both Suzuki and Flowers have been declining behind the plate slightly over the last four years.In the way of value just like Tyler Flowers the Braves have gotten a steal in Suzuki as his contract for 2017 was just $1.5 million. Fangraphs projects that Suzuki was worth a whopping $21.5M last season and has already been worth $11.9M this season after re-upping with the Braves for this season alone at $3.5 million dollars.
Now comes the hardest part. As much as it would be nice to think that both Flowers and Suzuki will just keep taking discounts to play for the team that took them in when they were at rock-bottom, that just doesn’t happen in baseball anymore. With Flowers set to turn 33 around the start of next season and with Suzuki closing in on 35 rapidly the Braves are going to be faced with the tough decision of who to pay and if it is wise to pay them long-term.
Kurt Suzuki would most likely be cheaper between the two and has voiced his pleasure with playing for the Braves in the past, but then Atlanta will have to weigh the risks of signing him because of his age and history. They still stand a good chance of signing Flowers because Atlanta is home for him, quite literally, and Flowers has been quoted in the past as wanting to be with the Braves long-term as well. However, if it comes down to it and the Braves aren’t willing to take the chance on either guy where can they go from there?
The most logical point to start would be to continue with the recent trend of homegrown talent. The only problem is that the Braves don’t have a catcher that looks close to Major League ready in their system. The closest “top prospect” to the Majors is Alex Jackson who is a converted outfielder-turned-catcher in Mississippi. After completely terrorizing high-A Florida and AA-Mississippi last season and doing fairly well in the Arizona Fall League Jackson has had a rough go of things so far this season batting near the Mendoza line with 5 home runs.
The next closest catching prospect is Brett Cumberland in high-A Florida who was Atlanta’s second round pick in 2016. Cumberland has been pretty solid for Florida this season and is likely ready for a move to Mississippi at some point this season but is still probably a year away from joining the big league team. Then the final minor league option is William Contreras who seems like the most legitimate future option despite only being at Rome right now. Contreras has some big league skills defensively already but likely will take another season or two to make it to Atlanta.
So again, the Braves are stuck between a rock and a hard place with this catching situation. Unless Alex Jackson just takes off from now until the end of the season at the plate and looks 100% ready to take the reigns next season Atlanta is going to have to figure out a way to get at least one of Suzuki or Flowers back. It is an interesting decision, but a vital one as it effects not only the middle of the Braves order but also the way the rotation is currently being handled behind the plate. Only time will tell.