Charlie Culberson’s season is a textbook example of the absurdity of Major League Baseball’s requirement that teams can carry no more than 13 pitchers. Culberson spent 61 days on the Atlanta Braves’ active roster and appeared in just one game while logging just one plate appearance. Despite that limited action, Culberson remained a fan favorite and was lauded as a teammate once again during his time with the Braves.
Culberson went to Spring Training with the Tampa Bay Rays but was released on March 24. He signed a minor league deal with the Braves four days later.
What were the expectations?
The expectation was that Culberson would go to Gwinnett and could provide depth as a utility player if needed. Since his double whammy of success in the 2018 season, Culberson amassed 0.3 fWAR in 546 PAs with the Rangers in Braves in his past four campaigns leading up to the 2023 season. He actually had a nice season defensively in 2021 that gave him some decent value in a part-time role, but was otherwise not really expected to do anything other than be replacement level if called upon.
Culberson struggled during his time at Triple-A hitting just .204/.234/.255 (that’s a 16 wRC+ in Triple-A, folks) with 35 strikeouts in 107 plate appearances. Despite those numbers, he saw two month-long stints on the active roster. Atlanta first selected his contract on May 19, when he came up to replace Braden Shewmake after Ehire Adrianza suffered a setback during his rehab assignment. Over a month later, the Braves designated him for assignment to call up Chadwick Tromp after Sean Murphy tweaked his hamstring and was unavailable for a few days. Culberson didn’t appear in any game during his first stint on the roster. He elected free agency after the DFA and subsequent outrighting to the minors, but quickly re-signed on a minor league deal. The Braves selected his contract again on June 30 when Tromp was sent back to the minors, and he barnacled his way through the next month, until July 31, when he was again DFAed to make room for newly-acquired Nicky Lopez. He once again was outrighted, elected free agency, and re-signed with the Braves on a minor league deal.
What went right?
Culberson finally got into a game on July 16 against the White Sox and singled in his only plate appearance of the season. That single... was an 81 mph infield single to lead off the bottom of the ninth in a blowout loss for the Braves.
After he was DFA’d again in July, Culberson returned to Gwinnett and explored transitioning to pitching. Culberson told Stripers’ play-by-play announcer Dave Lezotte that he’d like to be a two-way player, but was trying to do anything he could to extend his career. Culberson appeared in four games for Gwinnett as a pitcher and allowed two earned runs over 3 2⁄3 innings, with a 5/2 K/BB ratio.
What went wrong?
Other than his struggles at the plate at Triple-A, not much. Culberson was able to draw two months of service time. He was lauded by manager Brian Snitker and his teammates for his attitude and leadership. In many ways, he was the perfect guy to have in that final position player spot for just in case of an emergency.
Culberson will turn 35 in April and will again be searching for a minor league deal and a chance to prolong his career. I wouldn’t rule out seeing him back at Gwinnett, but the clock is no doubt ticking on his career. If called upon, he’ll probably provide the same replacement level support he’s more or less done for his whole career — his career fWAR is now 0.0 across 1,312 PAs, and that includes his 7 1⁄3 innings pitched across eight appearances as well.