The small dead period of Turkey Day kept the MLB mostly quiet over the last couple of days, though Monday featured yet another expected annual tradition: MLB’s non-tender deadline. And the Braves did the unexpected in the hours leading up to the 8:00 p.m. (EST) cutoff, announcing they would NOT tender fan favorite and do-it-all utility man, Charlie Culberson.
In the days leading up to Monday’s decision, articles were coming out in droves predicting probable non-tender choices for all 30 teams, pages filled with various arbitration-eligible players. Among the more notable sites, only catcher John Ryan Murphy and reliever Shane Greene seemed to make the Braves’ mock non-tender list, as the industry knew all too well the value Culberson provided the Braves, both in his production on the field and his endearing status among fans off of it. There was no way Charlie was going anywhere, right?
As Lee Corso says on College Gameday: “Not so fast, my friend!”
Roughly 8 hours before Monday’s deadline, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman shared this bit of depressing news:
It sounds like the Braves may non-tender Charlie Culberson before tonight's deadline. This would not be a popular decision. Culberson's value would seemingly be increased next year when the 26-man rosters are put in place.
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) December 2, 2019
The news was surprising, yet somehow it wasn’t. Over his last two seasons combined with the Braves, Culberson was worth a minuscule 1.3 fWAR, provided by an average .773 OPS and 17 home runs in 221 total games. With the Braves now two years removed from the cellar of the NL East, those numbers don’t exactly fit on a World Series-chasing roster. And despite a completely affordable $1.8 million projected arbitration salary for the 2020 season, GM Alex Anthopoulos didn’t believe it fit either.
In the end, three players were non-tendered on Monday: Culberson, Rafael Ortega, and Murphy:
Along with Culberson, the Braves non-tendered OF Rafael Ortega and C John Ryan Murphy https://t.co/RM1kOK3xst
— Mark Bowman (@mlbbowman) December 3, 2019
Ortega was also sort of an under-the-radar choice if none other than the fact that no one thought his place on the team was in jeopardy. As mentioned above, Murphy was one of the most-featured players on the internet when it came to Monday’s deadline. With the Braves currently well-stocked in catching depth, Murphy’s place within the organization wasn’t needed.
That brings us back to Culberson. Now that the end of the road looks to have come for Charlie — there’s still a chance the Braves bring him back for a lesser amount, but very doubtful — it only makes sense that we send him off with a proper farewell. To do that, let’s look back at a few Culberson highlights from his two-year run as a Brave, for he was more than just a well-versed utilityman.
The clutch bat
Culberson had a knack for coming up with the big hit when the Braves needed it the most, and during his two seasons with the team he came through with two walk-off homers — both coming within 7 days of one another back in 2018.
May 28, 2018 vs. NY Mets
June 3, 2018 vs. WSH Nationals
👏👏CHARLIE CLUTCH … AGAIN 👏👏
— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) June 3, 2018
In fact, in terms of Win Probability Added (WPA) over the past two seasons, Charlie’s game-winning drive on May 28 against the New York Mets still stands as the most-clutch hit by a Braves’ hitter, as his long ball gave the team an 80% swing in win expectancy. Culberson may not have been a regular in the Braves lineup, but he always seemed to play well when deployed.
The strong defense
Despite Culberson’s part-time role, the now-30-year-old actually has a great glove. According to FanGraphs’ defensive metrics (more specifically, UZR/150), his strongest position was first base — the spot he played the least during his time as a Brave (41.1 innings). However, Culberson played 67 innings at second, 162 innings at third, 204 frames at short, and 354.2 in the outfield (mostly at left).
A big defensive play we should all remember was from this past July when Culberson made a game-saving throw while on the run in left field against the Miami Marlins.
In case you forgot…
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) July 7, 2019
Culberson’s ability to play anywhere on the field is what has kept him in the big leagues all this time. His defense has never been elite (career -5.6 Def), but advanced metrics don’t quite illustrate just how adept a player must be to cover so many positions.
And altogether, there were many more notable plays during Culberson’s stint with the Braves, most of which were intangibles that he brought to the team. Culberson didn’t always see the field, but when he did, he was always focused. For someone who still has a lot of old-fashion fandom left in him, I greatly appreciate it when players are giving it their all every night, no matter the situation. There are just some things that WAR doesn’t measure, and Culberson is the perfect example of a player whose talent level shouldn’t be regulated to some advanced metric.
There is a chance this isn’t goodbye, but a quick period of separation between the Braves and Culberson. Just because the Braves non-tendered him, technically doesn’t mean the two sides can’t work out a deal, as Culberson is now a free agent and available to sign with any team in the majors.
The problem is that Culberson will be quite a valuable player on the market — for reasons shown above — and for teams with more roster flexibility, his cheap cost will entice many. Regardless, the Braves probably aren’t that interested, as this move was not about money… it’s about roster space. Plus, according to Bowman, Anthopoulos could use Culberson’s spot to re-sign shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. From his write-up at MLB.com on Monday night:
“This decision to part ways with Culberson may improve the odds of the Braves re-signing Adeiny Hechavarria. The veteran infielder is a much better defensive option than Culberson, and he showed some unexpected offensive life when he produced a 1.039 OPS over the 70 plate appearances he logged after signing with Atlanta in August.”
Unfortunately, this is the business of baseball. Anthopoulos has a duty, which is to compile the best 26-man roster he can, while of course staying within the financial parameters set by his bosses. I don’t blame the Braves GM, but it’s still disappointing.
So now we must move on without Culberson. MLB’s annual Winter Meetings will crank up next Sunday (Dec. 8), and there will be plenty more moves to get excited for. Heck, the Braves still need another starting pitcher and a third baseman. But whether or not Anthopoulos can pull off re-signing Josh Donaldson or a huge pick-up like Zack Wheeler, the 2020 Braves now have one less fan-favorite on their roster.