On December 8th 2015, the Atlanta Braves signed former White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers to a 2-year $5M contract with a 2018 option worth $4M. As we reach the home stretch of the 2017 season, no one could have possibly known what a bargain he would be.
Over the last two seasons, Flowers has hit .285/.371/.442 with a 118 wRC+. On top of, he’s graded out as 4th best pitch framer in 2016 and the top overall pitch framer in 2017. Sure, his caught stealing rate of 11% leaves plenty to desire, but his framing skills help overcome his other defensive shortcomings. By OPS, Flowers (.856) is only behind Buster Posey (.900) and Alex Avila (.864) among MLB catchers. By wRC+, Flowers (127) is only behind Posey (140) and Avila (133) yet again. Quite frankly, Flowers has turned into one of the top catchers in all of baseball.
Before joining the Braves, Flowers was a below average hitter by all accounts (665 OPS; 83 wRC+). Flowers credits adding a leg kick to his swing as the ultimate difference maker. Per Fangraphs, Flowers’ batted ball profile showed only a 30.4% hard-hit rate in Chicago. As a Brave, Flowers has seen that rate jump to 41.6% (8th in all of baseball since 2016), thanks in large part to the leg kick. After his 2016 success, it was a valid question to wonder whether or not his first season in Atlanta was a fluke. But as we enter the home stretch of 2017, the results continue to impress. Flowers has turned into the real deal in a Braves uniform.
His $4M option for 2018 is sure to be picked up, but it’s time for the Braves to look beyond 2018. Yes the organization has young talented bats like Alex Jackson (.261/.333/.482 with 14 HR in A+ and AA) and Brett Cumberland (.277/.419/.479 with 11 HR in A and A+) that could potentially be ready to replace Flowers in 2019, but as we all know, no prospect is a safe bet.
As Dave Cameron points out, even though catchers do see a decline in their 30’s, the performance drop is not as steep as you might expect. Flowers will be 32 in 2018, so any sort of contract extension should be calculated carefully. Twins catcher Jason Castro signed the top free agent contract among catchers last offseason when he signed a 3-year $24.5M contract (at 30 years old), and Nationals catcher Matt Wieters signed on for $10.5M in ’17 with a player option for the same salary in ’18. If the Braves could offer Flowers a bump in his 2018 salary to something similar to the salaries of Castro and Wieters ($8M-$10M range), along with a similar salary in 2019 as well as a potential club option (with a reasonable buyout) for 2020, the Braves could secure the catcher position while guys like Jackson and Cumberland continue to develop their offensive and defensive skills at the minor league level.