Braves System Depth 2020: Catcher
Spring training is just a three weeks away, and though there will be acquisitions before (and possibly after) pitchers and catchers report, this series will take a look at the players mostly likely to suit up at each level of the organization. Look for new installments every Monday and Friday until all players officially report on February 17.
The Braves have had a strong major league catching corps for most of the last decade, with the back half of that consisting of two catchers working at near-equal playing time. That gets an infusion of new blood with a major free agent signing, while down on the farm the Braves spent a first-round pick to shore up the system depth.
STARTER: Travis d’Arnaud
After incumbent Braves catcher Brian McCann announced his retirement immediately following the team’s elimination from the postseason, the Braves moved quickly to find a new partner for Tyler Flowers behind the plate, inking d’Arnanud, most recently of the Tampa Bay Rays, to a 2-year, $16 million deal. Traded at different points in his minor league career for Roy Halladay and R.A. Dickey, d’Arnaud was one of the top catching prospects in the early part of the last decade, ranking in the Baseball American top 100 prospects list for 5 consecutive seasons. Injuries however has hampered his career, especially since being traded to the Mets in the Dickey trade: a fractured left foot in 2013 that delayed his major league debut, a concussion in 2014, a broken hand from being hit by a pitch and an elbow sprain in 2015, a shoulder strain in 2016, a bruised wrist in 2017, and finally a torn UCL that required season-ending TJS in April of 2018 that essentially wiped out his season. After struggling for 10 games in 2019, the Mets finally had enough and gave d’Arnaud his release after 407 games spread over 7 painful seasons. After a one-game pit stop with the Dodgers, d’Arnaud found himself with Tampa Bay. Naturally, d’Arnaud proceeded to have his best major league season of his career, hitting .263/.323/.459 and tying a career high with 16 home runs.
The Braves are banking on the still relatively young d’Arnaud (he turns 31 on February 10) having more in the tank defensively two full seasons removed from TJS and that the production he showed with Tampa Bay was more indicative of his true offensive capabilities than the last few injury-plagued seasons with the Mets.
Back-up: The Braves will once again turn to Tyler Flowers to take the burden of the other half of their catching platoon, his fifth season back with the Braves after having been traded to the Chicago White Sox while still a prospect back in 2008. Flowers experienced an offensive renaissance when he joined the Braves, but his production at the plate has slipped the last two seasons. Flowers still provides value however as a solid defensive catcher who rates as one of, if not the top, pitch framers in all of baseball. Flowers has split catching duties pretty much evenly with his last two partners, Kurt Suzuki in 2018 and Brian McCann last season, but the plan is for him to to yield more time to the younger d’Arnaud in 2020.
GWINNETT STRIPERS (CLASS AAA)
STARTER: Alex Jackson
Jackson is set for his third season at AAA Gwinnett, but is also set for more major league exposure. With a 26-man major league roster, the Braves will have a far easier time bringing up an extra catcher when one of the regular catchers is banged up, as tends to happen a couple times a season. Jackson hit a career-high 28 home runs for the Stripers in 2019 while also scoring high marks on his overall defense from Baseball Prospectus’s catching metrics, a stark change from expectations after being switched back to catcher from a stint in the outfield when the Braves traded for Jackson from the Seattle Mariners. Still only 24 years old, Jackson is young for a AAA primary catcher, and any improvement in his contact rate could make him a fixture in the majors.
Back-up: Jonathan Morales and Carlos Martinez both received major league spring training non-roster invites, reflecting the respect that the duo have within the organization as defensive catchers. Morales can also fill in at first and third in a pinch. Longtime reserve catcher Sal Giardina will start the season on the shelf.
MISSISSIPPI BRAVES (CLASS AA)
STARTER: William Contreras
Contreras will start his age 22 season where he ended it, with the Mississippi Braves and looking for an offensive rebound. The Braves had Contreras focus more on the defensive side of his game in 2019, and by the end of the year was channeling his strong catching tools into consist defensive production. Double-A pitching however was able to exploit a swing path that had
gotten loopy, and much of his contact was lost into the cavernous outfield of TrustMark Park. If Contreras can make adjustments quickly he could find himself in Gwinnett before too long; now on the 40-man roster, Contreras will be looked upon as a call-up candidate if needed.
Back-up: As the son of former major league catcher Kevin Brown, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that 2018 35th-round pick Logan Brown is a good fundamental catcher. What has been surprising is how quickly Brown’s bat has come around, and he owns a .272/.321/.349 minor league batting line. Brown’s offense struggled in his mid-season promotion to high-A Florida, but it’s his defense that should continue to advance him. Zack Soria could be looked at as a possibility for this level as a third catcher.
FLORIDA FIRE FROGS (CLASS A+)
STARTER: Shea Langeliers
The 9th-overall draft pick in the 2019, Langeliers made immediate impression at Rome with his overall defensive polish. His bat was slower to manifest, which isn’t surprising given that he first had to learn a new pitching staff and he still was coming back from a hamate bone injury suffered in February with Baylor. In 2020, the organization will be looking to see how well Langeliers continues to adjust to calling his own games, and the Florida State League will be a challenge offensively as well. Expect more power however as he passed the year mark since the injury.
Back-up: Ricardo Rodriguez spent all 2019 in Rome, sharing duties with first Brown and then Langeliers, and he acquitted himself well behind the plate, showing to be one of the more fundamentally sound . Hagen Owenby also seems is a likely candidate for the Fire Frogs roster as a bat-first reserve that can catch and play first base. Rusber Estrada was the primary DH and back-up catcher for William Contreras for the first half of 2018, but injury and ineffectiveness had him mostly on the sidelines in the second half; Estrada was in Florida mostly due to lack of other options, and he could probably stand moving down a level to re-establish himself.
ROME BRAVES (CLASS A)
STARTER: Victor De Hoyos
After Langeliers, the catching depth shallows out; there’s a lot of candidates for catching duty at Rome with varying pedigrees, and I suspect the decisions will shake out in spring training. De Hoyos has as much chance as anyone to come out on top here; he has familiarity with most of the pitchers he would be receiving and is strong fundamentally, which is the primary concern at this level. De Hoyos struggled at the plate for Danville last season, but he has shown some pop in the bat.
Back-up: Mitch Calandra was one of the few senior signs from the 2019 draft, taken in the 30th round. Calandra gets high marks in leadership and handling a staff. Brandon Chapman, an undrafted minor league free agent from 2018, has impressed at the plate in limited looks at both rookie league levels and could be in play here as well, especially considering he was signed as a defensive specialist. As mentioned above, Rusber Estrada could also be a candidate to move down and find his game at this level.
Cerrato emerged from an injury-plagued 2019 season to catch the most games for the GCL Braves in 2019. Going into his age 21 season, the switch-hitter showed a little life at the plate and appears to have a solid defensive foundation to build on. Look for him in Danville, pending on what the Braves do in the draft.
A 21st-round pick by Atlanta in 2019, Valdes converted from third base for his junior season at Florida International University and impressed with his work ethic and leadership. In the GCL, Valdes struggled in limited looks at the plate.
A project catcher from Aruba, signed out of the Dutch Major League before the 2019 season, Bryson shows strong athleticism but is very raw on both at the plate and behind it, though the defense is ahead of the offense at this point.
Catcher Depth Chart
- Travis d’Arnaud
- Tyler Flowers
- Alex Jackson
- Jonathan Morales
- Carlos Martinez
- William Contreras
- Logan Brown
- Zach Soria
- Shea Langeliers
- Ricardo Rodriguez
- Hagen Owenby
- Rusber Estrada
- Victor De Hoyos
- Mitch Calandra
- Brandon Chapman
- Wilson Cerrato
- Javier Valdes
- Denzel Bryson
OFR TOP 5 CATCHER PROSPECT RANKINGS:
- Shea Langeliers (OFR #6)
- William Contreras (OFR #7)
- Alex Jackson (OFR #16)
- Logan Brown (OFR #30)
- Ricardo Rodriguez