At least for now, it appears that the Atlanta Braves’ catching unit for 2021 will have a new look. Veteran Travis d’Arnaud had a banner debut in a Braves uniform and will be entering the second and final year of his contract in 2021. Apparently gone, however, is Tyler Flowers, who has been part of Atlanta’s catching tandem since 2016. Flowers’ offensive contributions have slipped in recent seasons and for now, it appears that the Braves are going to give one of their young internal candidates a chance to win the job of backing up d’Arnaud.
While we have seen the Braves utilize a timeshare at the catcher position over the past few seasons, d’Arnaud is expected to see much more playing time in 2021. He was a big piece of the puzzle in 2020, posting a career-best line of .321/.386/.533, a .392 wOBA and a 144 wRC+. d’Arnaud also posted a career-high in average exit velocity at 93.4 mph, which led to a smoking .411 BABIP. That exit velocity was among the best in baseball, and his hard-hit rate (the percent of balls put in play at 95 mph or higher) was the highest in baseball. He will have a hard time sustaining the BABIP over a full 162 game season, but has largely been a different hitter since his arrival in Tampa Bay in 2019. With a heavier workload, keeping d’Arnaud healthy will be a priority, as he has dealt with a variety of injury issues in the past.
With no other veteran option in camp at this point, all eyes will be on Alex Jackson and William Contreras throughout Grapefruit League action. Both were pressed into duty on the opening weekend of the 2020 season after Flowers and d’Arnaud were sidelined due to COVID-19 concerns. Jackson has shown big time power in the minors, but the question is whether he will hit enough to remain at the major league level. He has made huge strides behind the plate and is now regarded as one of the better pitch framing catchers in the minor leagues, so handling the staff shouldn’t be too big of a concern.
Contreras is the bigger prospect here. He went 4-for-10 at the plate during his early season cameo in 2020 and looked much improved over what was an up and down 2019 season that he split between High-A and Double-A. Had Contreras been able to get some Triple-A time under his belt last season, I would be much higher on his chances to open the season with the Braves. I don’t think it is completely out of the question, but there is a good chance that Atlanta may want him to get a bit more development time. He is already on the 40-man roster, though, so him making the Opening Day roster isn’t out of the question if he turns heads in March. I’m not sure that the door is completely closed on the Braves acquiring a veteran back up at some point over the next month, but for now, it appears that they are focused on their internal options. Tyler Flowers is still out there, after all.
With Contreras and 2019 first round pick Shea Langeliers, the Braves appear to be in good shape long term at the catcher position. Langeliers drew good reviews at Spring Training last year and that continued while working at the alternate site. Camp is just a few days old and Brian Snitker has already had good things to say about his young catching group that also includes Logan Brown and Jonathan Morales. Langeliers hasn’t appeared in a game above Low-A yet, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move quickly through the system. It will be interesting to follow his progress along with that of Contreras in 2021 and we could see a homegrown unit behind the plate for the Braves in the near future.