The Braves have gone the platoon route at the catcher’s position ever since Brian McCann left here the first time (except for a brief period when Evan Gattis started most of the games). Since Gattis was traded to Houston in 2015, Atlanta watched Christian Betancourt fail to develop, platooned Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki for a couple of years, and most recently, paired Flowers with McCann in the final year of his career. With B-Mac now retired, Atlanta was forced to find another option in free agency, and they went after one of the better catchers on the market — Travis d’Arnaud.
Braves fans are familiar with d’Arnaud from his time with the New York Mets, where he spent seven seasons. They also know his brother, Chase, who played a couple of years for the Braves organization as a utility man. Last season, Travis was designated for assignment by the Mets, picked up by the Dodgers, released again, and then finally landed with the Tampa Bay Rays, where he had the best half-season of his professional career.
d’Arnaud slashed .263/.323/.459/.782 with 16 bombs in just 92 games, easily the most productive campaign with the bat of his career. Moving forward, however, the question will be is that sustainable? The Braves obviously think that it is, as they handed him a two-year, $16 million contract to return to the NL East, and it very well may be. The primary obstacle that has held him back over his career has been injuries.
In 2014 — the second year of d’Arnaud’s career — he was diagnosed with a concussion after being hit with a backswing. It was already the third concussion of his short career. Still, he managed to play in 108 games that season, the second-most of his career. In 2015, a broken hand and an elbow injury limited him to 67 appearances. It was the same story in 2016, as he only played 75 games. 2017 was his most productive in terms of games played. He appeared in 112, smashed 16 homers and recorded a respectable .735 OPS. But the injury bug hit him again in 2018, as he only appeared in four games after receiving Tommy John Surgery.
So you see why the Mets decided to part ways with him. Despite his production when healthy, he could never stay off the disabled list. But he did for the Rays last year and was among the best catchers in the league with the bat. And if he can do that for the Braves in 2020, Atlanta might finally have a primary starting backstop for the first time in a half-decade.
Now, Tyler Flowers is still going to be heavily involved. He’s extremely familiar with the pitching staff, is a tremendous pitch framer, and no catcher is going to play many more than 100 games in the Atlanta heat. However, when push comes to shove, the Braves should finally have a go-to option daily. Outside of one year in 2017, Flowers has barely been a replacement-level player, and he was atrocious last season against left-handed pitching, batting .155 with a .547 OPS. Meanwhile, d’Arnaud has a career OPS of .781 against lefties and is a far better offensive weapon overall.
Bringing back Brian McCann last year was wonderful from a nostalgia perspective and in the clubhouse, but his results on the field were underwhelming. He only recorded a WAR of 0.3 and struggled mightily as the season waned. Still, he was the Braves’ starting option for the entire five games of the NLDS, which shows just how little confidence the organization has in Flowers. As far as upgrades go, going from McCann to d’Arnaud is a significant one, as long as the latter can stay on the field.
In today’s era, catchers are the most undervalued position in the game. Most teams are willing to sign a defensive option and are happy if he hits his weight with the bat. d’Arnaud can take care of things defensively, but his bat could be the best the Braves have had since the Evan Gattis days. d’Arnaud hitting over .260 with around 20 bombs in 100 games or so is not out of the realm of possibility and would give the Braves another boost in their effort to replace the offensive production of Josh Donaldson.
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