If there is one thing we have learned about Charlie Culberson in his two years with Atlanta: he is best used in moderation. Is he as clutch as they come? Yes. Is he an everyday player? No. Is he an injury fill-in for an everyday player? That may not even be the case.
That is the primary reason why the Braves removed Culberson from their 40-man roster by non-tendering him during the offseason. After evaluating some big league offers, “Charlie Clutch” decided to return to Atlanta on a minor league deal. The team was still waiting with open arms but will have much more flexibility in what they can do with him going forward. So what does this say about the type of role the Braves expect from him this season?
For starters, he will have to make the team. In Gabe Burns’ most recent article for the AJC, he made his goal for this Spring clear.
“I just have one thing on my mind: Come in here and play well, have fun and make this ballclub again,” he said. “Making the team, that’s it.”
The Braves project to have a very deep bench this season, featuring two former All-Star outfielders in Nick Markakis and Adam Duvall. On the infield, the Braves brought back Adeiny Hechavarria after an impressive stint with the team. For Culberson, the bad news is that Hechavarria was acquired due to the Braves not having a viable defender at shortstop to fill in for the injured Dansby Swanson, so the Braves are likely done experimenting with Culberson there. The good news is that the team might want Austin Riley to start the year in AAA, which should cement Culberson’s Opening Day roster spot.
The way the third base situation plays out could also go a long way in dictating Culberson’s role for the upcoming season. If Austin Riley ends up winning the job before long, Camargo may end up being used as the team’s “swiss army knife”, even if the role did not go as planned for him in 2019. Unfortunately, that would make Charlie expendable.
If I had to phrase how I expect Culberson’s role to play out, I would say he’s simply the last man off the bench. There will certainly be less use for him this season, and barring an injury or two, his roster spot could be in jeopardy if the team deems Austin Riley ready to contribute. He is not as good of a defender as Adam Duvall in the outfield, or Adeiny Hechavarria in the infield. Nick Markakis will probably be used in many of the clutch situations that could have been at-bats for Culberson, so Charlie is going to have to take whatever he gets and make the most of it. Good thing that’s how he approaches the game — always doing whatever it takes for the team to win.
After suffering a facial fracture when hit by a pitch, a season-ending injury, Culberson has more to prove than he has at any point in his Braves career. In Burns’ article, he says these fractures are still healing, but he is feeling good about the upcoming season:
“Vision was always great,” he said. “It’s still healing. But my mind is good. I’m ready and excited. I’m trying to put that stuff behind me and look forward. … Try not to think too much about (the injury). Just find a good pitch and put a swing on it.
But remember what I said at the beginning of the article? Moderation. Culberson has been best when used sparingly, and while he may not have as defined of a role with the team in 2020, all it takes is a handful of at-bats for him to make a difference. Bringing him back adds depth, whether it ends up being in the major or minor leagues. Considering he is from Rome and wanted to return, accepting a AAA assignment would not be out of the question if he ends up making the roster.
I expect Culberson to be used sparingly in 2020, logging around 100-200 at-bats, With that being said, I do think he makes a difference and continues to offer solid production with the bat in big moments. If Hechavarria struggles, it could mean a more significant role for Culberson. Moves can also be made as well. For now, the Braves have six quality bench bats to their avail, and only five can make the team. I do think he has the inside track over non-roster invitee Yangervis Solarte. Culberson is a major league talent. However, the personnel makes him a fringe roster body, which is a fantastic problem for Atlanta to have. Only two years ago, Culberson was starting at shortstop for the Braves in the NLDS in place of the injured Dansby Swanson. Thankfully, that will never happen again.