Mar 3, 2014; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward (22) warms up before the spring training exhibition game against the New York Mets at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Braves vs. the NL East: Catchers

Mar 2, 2014; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt (58) talks to relief pitcher Cory Gearrin (53) during the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

We’re going to continue our series ranking the position players in the National League’s Eastern Division with what could be the most difficult comp:  the catching position.  And frankly it’s difficult because of two reasons:

  • Not a long track record for a number of the players involved
  • A very wide range of possible performance outcomes

I’ve spent a lot of time this off-season looking at the Braves’ Catchers:  here, here, and here.  Oh, and even here.  But despite that, I have to say that while the Braves are hopeful that their bountiful band of backstops can bash the baseball without bobbling too many of them, it’s going to honestly be something of a craps shoot once April begins, for Evan Gattis has never caught 100 games in a season.

So with that as a backdrop, let’s check out the competition:

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For simplicity, “third” catchers have been left off the list, since they are not expected to see a lot of playing time anyway.  So let’s see what one should expect in terms of basic production in 2014.

 

Offense

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The explanations:

  • Yes, Evan Gattis will be better than 0.9 fWAR (2013) this year.  No, the combined might of he and Gerald Laird (0.9) will not make up for the loss of Brian McCann‘s 2.7 fWAR.  Thus I believe that Atlanta’s catching production will be less than the 4.5 fWAR of that trio from 2013.
  • Personally, I’ve never been high on Jarrod Saltalamacchia, other than in picking on his name.  I believe he played above his pay grade last year in Boston, and almost certainly will regress somewhat – on top of playing in 121 games for 2 straight years – his career high.  At least he’ll be indoors in Miami – that alone is probably worth an extra 1.0 fWAR during a sweltering Florida summer.  But despite all that, the Marlins’ catchers should easily outstrip last year’s negative-WAR production.
  • Travis d’Arnaud has no place to go but up.  But it’s hard to say whether he’ll stay the primary guy if he struggles this year.  Anthony Recker could end up splitting the time equally with him.  Interesting that this is the only pair of catchers in the division to ‘repeat’ with their team this year.
  • Which Carlos Ruiz will show up this year?  Well, since he missed a bunch of games in 2013 (suspension), he’ll likely have more production, but will it be the 1.4 fWAR of 2013, or the (juiced-up) 5.2 fWAR from 2012?  I’m guessing a little more than 2013, but not strongly so – same for the total team production.
  • With Brian McCann gone, Washington’s catchers are now the class of the division – easily.  Wilson Ramos pulled 1.8 fWAR in just half the schedule last year, and Jose Lobaton matched that over 100 games for Tampa Bay.  That was a solid pickup for them.

 

Defense

I had previously projected that the Braves catchers would be – overall – somewhat worse than the average (Gattis slightly better; Laird… not great).  This could be further complicated if Laird’s back continues to bother him as it did a couple of days ago, as Ryan Doumit is even worse behind the plate.  In all honesty, if Laird can’t go, then Christian Bethancourt should be called upon to fill in for him, since he will most certainly make the defense better.  So this will come down to the amount of playing time that Laird gets, but the best scenario would be if Bethancourt gets called up.

Otherwise, there’s a surprise here:  the Marlins actually have the best fielding catchers – despite Salty’s throw at third base in the World Series.  Both he and Jeff Mathis are more than capable – and are definitely the best in the league.

Next up are the Nationals:  both Ramos and Lobaton are also better than average – close to the Marlins’ duo, but just a notch behind.

For Philly, Ruiz is a solid defender as well, while backup Wil Nieves is roughly average.  In New York, neither catcher is a standout on the field, but they aren’t butchers either.

 

Overall Catching Rankings

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The Nationals win this battle again.  Yes, the Braves catchers could do better.  Ditto for the Phillies; possibly also the Marlins.  I gave the nod to the Phillies over Atlanta due to defense:  though I weighed defense half as much as offense, the offensive projections (guesses, really) for those two teams came out almost too close to call anyway.  Playing time will make a big difference here, though.  And that’s the problem in ranking this position – too much potential for variables to kick in and mess with the process.  Then again, we don’t play the game on paper, now, do we?

A couple of things for sure, though:

  • The Mets have some work to do:  there’s no way to project their catchers as anything higher than 5th on this list.
  • The Nationals have the fewest question marks

 

A few Superlatives:

  • Best Overall Catcher:  Again, tough to call:  I’ll go with Ramos, then Ruiz, Lobaton, Salty, and Gattis.  Can’t argue too much if someone would like to shuffle these names in any order.
  • Worst Overall Catcher:  Jeff Matthis, due to lack of offense, though either of the Mets’ players could do just as poorly.
  • Ones to Watch:  Ramos, d’Arnaud, Saltalamacchia, and Gattis.  Their production will be key for their respective teams.

 

We’ll continue with this series in the days to come.  In the meantime, I’d like to encourage your responses.

 

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