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Braves Catching Turning Into a Strength
In the major leagues, few teams have had a better situation behind the plate than the Braves this season. With Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, the Braves have a pair of players who have been productive all season long at the plate and in Flowers' case, they have the game's best framer. But both are over 30 and may not around when the Braves next make the playoffs. Today, let's look at the minor league situation and see if the Braves will have replacements.

It wasn't that long ago that the Braves had one catching prospect - Christian Bethancourt. It was easy to look past his flaws because he was really Atlanta's only hope. Similar things happened over the years with Scott Thorman at first base and Kyle Davies at starter. Atlanta didn't have many other options so what options the Braves did have seemed better than they actually were.

While the Braves will still have to wait a few years for their guys to develop, the catcher position is starting to turn from an organizational weakness to one of strength. From trades to the draft to the international market, the Atlanta Braves have acquired a good deal of talented catchers that might usher in the next Javy Lopez or Brian McCann - catchers who were both offensively and, to some degree, defensively able.

Seven catchers made our Top 50 Midseason Prospect list. The seven prospects run the gamut from the strong defender to the strong hitter to the guys who are a bit of both. Moving forward, their development might prompt the Braves to avoid spending richly on a free agent and go with a cheaper, younger, and maybe an even better option. With all that in mind, let's take a look level-by-level.

Gwinnett
Kade Scivicque, #43 in the Midseason Top 50 - Acquired in last summer's Erick Aybar trade with the Tigers, Scivicque had a strong Arizona Fall League showing after the trade, but hasn't been able to continue that success this season. Slashing .261/.314/.345 mostly at Mississippi, Scivicque hasn't really regressed compared to last season, but it's still not close to his AFL numbers. Unfortunately, Scivicque has not graded well defensively this season according to Baseball Prospectus's Advanced Metrics for catchers (-4.6 FRAA). These metrics have their issues, but do help frame the discussion. Scivicque was expected to be a decent little hitter who could improve behind the plate. At this rate, that might be too much to expect. Scivicque made out Top 50 at midseason, but without a strong finish, it could be the final time he holds that distinction. On the plus side, at 24 years-old, he's the youngest catcher to play at Gwinnett with the exception of Bethancourt in at least a part-time role - period. Seriously, since their inaugural season in 2009, the Gwinnett Braves have been a home for the, as Outfield Fly Rule's Brent Blackwell recently put it, Fraternal Order of Replacement Backstops (FORB). These are guys who just travel from one organization to the next getting playing time as a "good handler of young pitchers." Scivicque might not be a great prospect, but he is - at the very least - a prospect.

Mississippi
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Alex Jackson, #11 - The bat is back for Jackson. He hit .272/.333/.502 with Florida while smashing 14 HR. To be fair, his walk and strikeout rates are concerning, but Jackson was drafted for his massive raw power and with already a new career-high in home runs set this year, the Braves are very happy with his development at the plate. Behind it, he's still a work in progress. When he was drafted, Jackson's arm was not the problem and still isn't. He's got a showcase cannon either from behind the plate or in the outfield. The problem was that defensively, his skills were behind the curve. Three years of playing outfield have done little to help with that. I think the Braves will wait until this offseason - at the earliest - before attempting to judge Jackson's defense. If they've seen progression throughout the year, he might continue to wear the tools of ignorance. If not, it might be time to shift him back to the outfield. Regardless, his bat plays no matter where he ultimately lines up.

Joseph Odom - The recent trade of Anthony Recker brought Odom to Gwinnett, but only for a couple of days before he was exchanged with Scivicque. Odom has generally not hit well since he was drafted out of Huntingdon College back in 2013, but he increased his OPS each year to a personal-best .758 last year between Carolina and Mississippi. He doesn't profile as a big prospect, but there is enough pop and plate discipline here that, when combined with solid reports of his defensive capabilities, it makes Odom a potential future member of FORB.

Jonathan Morales - In three years, Morales has gone from interesting prospect to we're-still-hoping to nearly-forgotten-to-the-point-a-blogger-has-to-do-a-last-second-edit-before-publishing-this-article-because-I-forgot-about-him. Got all that? Morales slashed .304/.377/.511 in the Gulf Coast League back in 2015, but his OPS fell a bit over two hundred points with Rome the following year. He wasn't really setting the world on fire in Florida over the first few months this year, but with other higher-rated prospects pushing him, he was moved up the chain. Morales does rank solidly in catching metrics, though he's playing nearly as much first base now. To get back in the Braves' good graces, we're going to need to see some production at the plate soon, though.

Florida
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Brett Cumberland, #26 - Don't look now, but Bcumbo Slice (his twitter handle) is starting to figure it out at Florida. Cumberland got off to a tough start in Rome, going 6-for-45 to begin the year with a .582 OPS. His next 179 PA looked like this - .308/.469/.623 with 9 HR. He was brought up a level last June and again, it was tough sledding early. In his first 59 AB, he had just 10 hits, including one homer. However, he's been on fire since, hitting .377/.482/.478 with seven doubles. It's not a big sample size, but Cumberland's got the skillset to be a big bat. Like Jackson, the question has remained whether he'll remain a catcher with that big bat or be forced to move to another position. Unfortunately, there is a reason to agree with Baseball Prospectus' Steve Givarz when he said of Cumberland, "His glove? Hey he’s a good hitter let’s focus on that!" It's not that he can't stay at catcher, but there's significant doubt whether or not his defense will ultimately take away from his overall value. You don't have to be a superb defender and a good hitter, but the team would like to know that your glove is good enough to not embarrass the team should you stick at the position. Furthermore, there is a reasonable concern that Cumberland's hit-by-pitch numbers are soft. Going back to college, he's always got hit by a healthy number of pitches (38 total this year). However, pitcher's control improves as you climb the minor league ladder. He has just one more unintentional walk this season than he does HBP so it's a big part of his game. What happens if pitchers avoid hitting him?

Tanner Murphy - I was a big fan of Murphy after he hit .242/.361/.389 with Danville in 2014 and earned a lot of praise along the way. However, his numbers have only regressed since. He seemed to turn the corner last season, hitting .297/.411/.337 after the All-Star Break, but he has struggled to duplicate the success since. While his defense remains solid, Murphy is struggling to find at-bats behind higher-rated prospects added to the system since Murphy's selection in 2013. When Bethancourt arrived in the majors, Murphy was the top catching prospect still in the minors. Now, he's not even in the Top 5.

Rome
Lucas Herbert, #36 - The good news is that Herbert's numbers have looked quite a good deal better with Rome than they did in 2016. The bad news is that they still don't look that great. On the year, Kolby Allard's former high school catcher is hitting .258/.317/.390 with 7 HR. A name comes up on his Baseball Prospectus page as a top similarity that might not make Braves' fans happy - Christian Bethancourt in 2012. While no one wants to compare the two, the idea is pretty fair - both had reputations as strong defenders with questionable offensive potential. Now, let's be generous here and remember that Herbert basically lost a season of development after he went down with an injury in his first professional game in the Gulf Coast League in 2015. Let's also recall that at 20 years-old with really one year of experience, one would expect Herbert's 2017 level of production considering his profile coming out of high school. Nevertheless, success has been hard to come by for Herbert to this point. His offensive game is still raw and he could be a sleeper candidate next year if it starts to come together, though

Carlos Martinez - Where did this come from? Martinez hit in the .220's the last two seasons for Danville but has found a way to hit .301 this season. Of course, when your BABIP jumps to .352 when it was never higher than .269, that helps. Martinez also has one of the strangest numbers in the system - an .010 ISO. Of his 31 hits, 30 are singles. That's astounding. It's also reason to believe that Martinez, even at his best, is not a prospect.

Drew Lugbauer, #44 - A recent callup from Danville, Lugbauer has yet to stop hitting. On the year, the former Michigan Wolverine is hitting .272/.374/.551 with nine doubles, a triple, and ten homeruns. All of the four-baggers came with Danville before the promotion to Rome. He's shared an equal amount of time between first base, third base, and catcher and hasn't looked that bad at the corners. His footwork behind the plate is not crisp, though, and he's failed to throw out any of the nine baserunners that have attempted to steal on him. Despite including him in this discussion, it's harder to see him staying behind the plate than either Jackson or Cumberland. He'll have to improve dramatically in that regard to continue to receive regular time as a catcher. The good news is that Lugbauer could present the Braves, if he develops well, with an interesting option that can catch if needed, but also play the corner infield positions. Such a player would have been nice in Atlanta this year with the production the Braves have received from both catchers and the hesitancy to use one or the other in a pinch hitting appearance.

Danville
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William Contreras, #50 - I gave Contreras a #46 ranking in our Midseason Top 50 and Ryan Cothran ranked him two spots higher. I don't know about Ryan or Stephen Tolbert (who had him unranked), but Contreras is primed to be one of my biggest risers when we reconvene for a postseason update. The brother of the Cubs' Wilson, William OPS'd .783 and .721 over two years spent in the DSL and GCL before this year. Lauded for his defense, the bat was considered more of a question. This season, he's had the best year combining both offense and defense of any of the Braves' minor league catchers. Hitting .336/.426/.496 with 3 HR, Contreras has regularly flashed a bat capable of doing big things despite all but 19 of his 141 PA coming against pitchers older than he is. He also has shown a good command of the strikezone, walking four more times than he has struck out. His defense is very fluid behind the plate and only getting better as he refines his footwork and framing. Of the games I've personally seen this season, no catcher has prompted the umpire to receive more complaints from batters upset about strike calls. That tells me that he's capable at framing. But while all of his tools are solid, his biggest weapon is a cannon of an arm that he's not shy about showing at any time. He keeps his infielders on their toes as he's willing to try to pick off runners. He'll even gun it around the horn after a strikeout. I haven't seen a better defensive catcher this season in the Appalachian League and he's still only 19 years-old.

Hagan Owenby - Drafted more for his bat, Owenby played a good deal of first base and DH before Lugbauer's promotion just to get him into action. He's a leader on the field and does a good job working with his pitchers, but his defense isn't very good right now (he has five of Danville's 11 passed balls to this point). At the plate, he has a nice line-drive stroke that might develop more power as he progresses. His performances at first base were pretty ugly and I feel confident that he'll last at catcher, but I don't have the same amount of confidence that the bat will ever be enough to make up for defensive problems behind the plate.

Alan Crowley - Some people are drafted just to be backup catchers in the minors. Crowley is one of those guys. He did ride a high BABIP to a .327 average over 56 PA with Rome last year, but less balls are dropping this year and his .163 average is a result.

GCL
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Abraham Gutierrez, #33 - While Kevin Maitan received most of the coverage during last year's international signing spree by the Braves, Gutierrez is a pretty impressive prospect as well. He jumped to the states to begin this season with the GCL squad and the 17-year-old has hit a respectable .261/.327/.330. He's also thrown out 39% of baserunners, which is no small feat considering the ability for teenage pitchers to hold runners. Gutierrez's scouting report includes amazing athletism behind the plate, a strong arm, and a quick-and-powerful stroke at the plate. The emergence of Contreras this year as the best full-package catching prospect shouldn't negate Gutierrez, who still might have the best potential of any Braves minor league catching prospect.

Ricardo Rodriguez - Acquired in the Christian Bethancourt trade, Rodriguez has been stuck with the Gulf Coast League Braves due to a weak offensive profile and not enough at-bats for all of the Braves catching prospects. Rodriguez is one of the guys who might get more extended look if the Braves opened some playing time by adding a second rookie team in the GCL or adding a short-season A-ball team for their college-age draftees like Owenby or Crowley. Rodriguez, by the way, has a strong glove and flashed a decent enough bat in the Dominican Summer League two years ago. It's been missing-in-action since coming stateside, though.

The Braves have more catchers, but these are some of the bigger names. What would your Top 5 Braves catching prospects look like? And do you think Jackson, Cumberland, and/or Lugbauer will stay at catcher long-term? Let me know in the comments.


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