The Braves should look into extending Tyler Flowers

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.

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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.

Wisler to the bullpen is the right call by the Braves

The Braves announced on Thursday afternoon that 24-year-old RHP Matt Wisler was moving to the bullpen in Gwinnett. The move comes after nearly three years of Wisler rotating back and forth between Gwinnett’s rotation to Atlanta’s rotation. Ultimately Wisler was unable to replicate his AAA success (3.90 ERA; 3.55 FIP) at the big league level (5.12 ERA; 4.93 FIP). The biggest issue for Wisler has been the lack of an effective third pitch to attack left-handed hitters, and the numbers speak for themselves:

Wisler vs LH: .376 OBP; 5.11 K/9; 5.05 BB/9

Wisler vs RH: .287 OBP; 7.31 K/9; 1.41 BB/9

The move to the bullpen will allow Wisler to focus on being primarily a two-pitch pitcher. His fastball, which has averaged 93.0 MPH over his MLB career, could see a spike in velocity that allows him to pitch more along the lines of 95-96 MPH in one-inning stints. On top of that, a bump in velocity could make his already effective slider even more of a weapon. According to Fangraphs, Wisler’s pitch value of his slider graded out 26th in all of MLB in 2016 among pitchers that threw at least 150 innings. That was ahead of guys like Zack Greinke and Marcus Stroman, who are both known for their excellent slider.

Unfortunately not all of the Braves highly regarded pitching prospects will live up to they hype. In fact many may never amount to much of anything at the big league level. With that being said, if the Braves can utilize Wisler as a reliever primarily working against right-handed hitters, his mid-90’s fastball and strong slider could make him a very effective MLB reliever.

The crowded infield in Atlanta

When the Atlanta Braves opted to option Dansby Swanson to AAA Gwinnett last week, it seemingly cleared up a crowded infield situation for the Atlanta Braves. Swanson was in the midst of a year-long slump, and manager Brian Snitker had decided to give the majority of the shortstop starts to fellow rookie Johan Camargo. With Swanson moving on to everyday at-bats in Gwinnett, the infield situation seemed to be clearing itself up.

And then the Braves promoted Ozzie Albies.

Albies arrived in Atlanta as a two-time Top 100 prospect, regardless of which prospect publication you prefer. Unlike the last couple weeks of Swanson’s 2017 season in Atlanta, Albies was not coming up to be a part-time player.

Which shifts our focus to Atlanta’s other second baseman, Brandon Phillips. Despite turning 36 this year, Phillips has yet to show signs of his age. His slash line of .292/.335/.436 and his 101 wRC+ are as good of numbers as we’ve seen from Phillips since his 5.4 fWAR season of 2011. On a bad team, this guy is too good to be sitting the bench. So if you aren’t going to use him, why not trade him?

Trading Phillips is tricky. In 2012, Phillips signed a $72.5M contract extension with the Cincinnati Reds, which included limited no-trade protection (allowing Phillips to block deals to 12 teams). Phillips’ list of 12 teams is currently unknown, so it is entirely possible the Braves worked a deal to trade Phillips and he ultimately shot it down. After all, Phillips is from nearby Stone Mountain, GA, and he’s made it very clear he’s happy to be back near home. Having said that, there are no reports at this time of Phillips blocking any trades. It could just be that there isn’t a huge need for second basemen among playoff contending teams right now.

With Phillips in Atlanta, the optimal Atlanta lineup does not include him on the bench. The Braves could easily shift Albies to shortstop (he made 215 appearances at shortstop in his minor league career, with 166 appearances at second base). The only reason Albies was moved off of shortstop last year was to accommodate the organization’s addition of Swanson. Albies was regarded as a strong defender at shortstop, but Swanson was considered even better.

With Albies and Phillips up the middle, Snitker could mix and match the rest of the field how he pleases. Camargo has been a pleasant surprise, and Atlanta could give him the majority of the reps at third base for the time being. This would allow Freddie Freeman to move back to his natural position at first base. And although Matt Adams has turned out to be a great move by GM John Coppolella, he has started to cool off in recent weeks (.225/.273/.350 since July 17). Snitker said he plans to use Adams in left field going forward, but the outfield transition was one he struggled in with St. Louis earlier this year. Snitker could attempt to use somewhat of a platoon situation with Adams in left field and Camargo at third versus right-handed pitching, (or to take it a step further, use them in these positions when the Braves have more of a ground ball pitcher on the mound, where Adams’ shortcomings in left field may not be as glaring as expected) and then possibly play Sean Rodriguez in left field versus left-handed pitching.

In the long run, the best thing for the Braves would be finding a trade partner for Brandon Phillips. He’s not under contract for the 2018 season and Ozzie Albies appears to be the second baseman of the future. But until they can find a trade partner, the best Atlanta infield includes both Brandon Phillips and Ozzie Albies.

Time for the Braves to cash in on Kurt Suzuki

When the Braves signed Kurt Suzuki in January, they knew they were landing an experienced catcher at a cheap price ($1.5M for the 2017 season). The game plan was for Suzuki to provide insurance in case of a Tyler Flowers injury, as well as catch R.A. Dickey every 5 days. But there is no way the Braves could have known what they would actually be getting from Suzuki.

Through 49 games and 180 plate appearances, Suzuki has hit 12 HR while on his way to a career best .872 OPS and a 122 wRC+. ¬†All told, Suzuki’s 1.5 fWAR ranks 13th among MLB catchers, despite not being his own team’s starting catcher. Much of Suzuki’s success has come from a large spike in his home runs per fly ball rate (17.6%; career rate of 6.4%). On top of that, Suzuki seems to have taken a play from Josh Donaldson’s playbook of trying to hit more fly balls. Through August 1st, Suzuki has posted a 50% fly ball rate, well above his career rate of 39%. So far, the shift in strategy has paid huge dividends for Suzuki’s offensive performance.

Entering today’s action, there are 21 teams with below league-average (100 wRC+) offensive production at catcher. Among those 21 teams, 9 are above .500 and chasing a playoff spot (although one of those teams, the Rockies, recently added Jonathan Lucroy). That would leave 8 teams that could potentially receive a shot in the arm with the addition of Suzuki. At a modest $1.5M 2017 salary and a visit to the free agent market once again in 2018, Suzuki could be a very intriguing short-term option for someone.

The 2017 non-waiver trade deadline ended with Suzuki still wearing a Braves uniform on Monday, but it’s not too late to place Suzuki on revocable waivers and try to work out a deal with a contender.