Position Analysis: Catcher

This is the first in a series of reports on each position in the Atlanta Braves organization. We'll do this leading up to the end of the calendar year, and then again after the winter meetings leading up to spring training. We start at catcher.

The Atlanta Braves just enjoyed one of the best seasons ever by a catcher. Javy Lopez set the major league record for home runs by a catcher with 43 on September 27th in Philadelphia. He also became only the third catcher in big league history to finish with at least 40 home runs, 100 RBI, and a .300 batting average (Roy Campanella in 1953 and Mike Piazza in 1997).

Javy hit .328 and drove in 109 runs, both career high numbers. He had an AB per HR ratio of 10.6, which would rank second in the majors if he had enought plate appearances to qualify (7 shy).

Lopez has been the best catcher in Atlanta Braves history. He has been the Braves starting catcher since 1994, and during that time has compiled a .287 career average, 1148 hits (4th best in Atlatna history), 214 home runs (6th best in Atlanta history), and 694 runs batted in (5th best in Atlanta history).

But now Lopez will be a free agent. There is little doubt he wants to return to the Braves, but realizes the nature of the business. After a season with tremendous numbers, he should be able to command huge numbers. However, he will be 33 years old in November, and many wonder how many teams will offer top dollar to a catcher that age. Javy continually discussed spending part of his future in baseball as a first baseman, a message clearly sent to the Braves and other teams that he wants the contract for a player who is going to get 450 at bats per season over the next few years.

It has been assumed all year that Lopez would leave the Braves and Johnny Estrada, sent to Atlanta last December in the Kevin Millwood trade, would take over in 2004. But Lopez' great season has the Braves now debating whether he should be offered a contract. With Robert Fick leaving via free agency, the Braves are certain to promote Richmond's Adam LaRoche to get the majority of playing time at first base. But would it be possible for Lopez to return and be the right handed part of a platoon at first base? Bobby Cox usually likes to break in his rookies slowly, not giving them an everyday job.

If Lopez returns, he could still catch 3-4 times a week, splitting time with Estrada. With Vinny Castilla also probably leaving via free agency, $6 million dollars will be saved from the infield (including Fick's $1 million). If Lopez returns and plays first base, perhaps part of his salary could be budgeted as infield money.

But what will Lopez take to return? He made $7 million in 2003 and will surely deserve a raise. Would he take a 2 year, $18 million dollar deal? If so, he'll probably be back. But there will be other teams out there interested, particularly American League teams that may want to use Lopez as a designated hitter. Baltimore, with millions to spend on free agency, has been mentioned most often as a team interested in Lopez. But the Orioles are also interested in Vladimir Guerrero, possibly making it tough to bring in Lopez as well. The Chicago White Sox are another possibility for Lopez

A big question is Lopez' potential for coming close to repeating his 2003 numbers. It's almost unrealistic to expect him to be able to repeat his tremendous 2003 season. But how much offense can he produce? If he gets a contract for $10 million or more per season, it will be solely based on his 2003 numbers. But will he be worth that if he dips below .300 and hits only 25 home runs? Is it more realistic for him to produce 20-30 home runs and drive in over 75?

The biggest worry for the Braves is a possible dropoff in production from Lopez to Estrada, who is not going to drive in 109 runs and is definitely not going to hit 43 home runs. Estrada did very well in Richmond in 2003, hitting .328 (2nd in International League) with 10 home runs, and 66 RBI in 354 at bats. He was also 3rd in OBP (.393), and 5th in SLG% (.494).

Estrada hit .306 in his limited time with Atlanta (36 at bats). His previous major league experience has been spotty. In 2001, when Mike Lieberthal was injured for Philadelphia, Estrada hit .228 with 8 home runs and 37 runs batted in. His career major league batting average is .231.

Johnny Estrada is fully confident in his abilities and his potential to produce effectively if given consistent at bats. Perhaps he could hit close to .300 and hit 10-15 home runs and drive in 75. But even those solid numbers pale in comparison to what Lopez is capable of.

Defensively, reports were mixed from Richmond on Estrada. He can be excellent at blocking pitches in the dirt, but pitchers were a little split on his play-calling abilities. With pitching being so important to this organization, are the Braves willing yet to split their ties with a catcher who has been around for many years of success?

Henry Blanco is probably finished with the Braves. He hit only .199 with 1 home runs and 13 runs batted in. Blanco is a free agent and will not be re-signed.

If Lopez departs and Estrada takes over as the primary catcher, it's likely the Braves will bring in a veteran catcher as the backup. Here is the free agent list for catchers:

Sandy Alomar
Brad Ausmus
Pat Borders
Mike DiFelice
Bobby Estalella
John Flaherty
Brook Fordyce*
Joe Girardi
Todd Greene
Tim Laker
Brent Mayne*
Greg Myers
Keith Osik
Eddie Perez
Todd Pratt
Ivan Rodriguez
Benito Santiago
Kelly Stinnett
Matt Walbeck
Chris Widger
Greg Zaun

There is also several catchers who could be non-tendered (Montreal's Michael Barrett and Atlanta native is a possibility) in December.

As for the free agent list, there are several intersting possibilities. There are two former Braves on the list (Greg Myers and Eddie Perez) and John Schuerholz has shown in the past that he's not afraid to bring back some of his favorites. However, Perez could be in for his first big contract. Alomar hit .268 with five home runs in 194 at bats, but turns 38 next June. He does provide great veteran leadership in the clubhouse. Ausmus (.229, 2 HR, 47 RBI in 450 at bats) and Santiago (.279, 11 HR, 56 RBI in 401 at bats) have both been rumored to be going back to San Diego.

Now let's take a look at the other catchers in the Atlanta Braves organization.

J.C. Boscan finished the 2003 season in Greenville, hitting .185 with 2 home runs and 15 runs batted in. He also had short stints with Richmond and Myrtle Beach. Boscan is an excellent defensive catcher, but his .197 combined 2003 average just adds credence to the thought that he cannot produce offensively. Boscan has a career average of .219. The Braves are bringing him back to play at either Greenville or Richmond, but he has little value as a potential major leaguer.

Jose Salas continued to battle offensive struggles himself in 2003. At 6'3", 215 pounds, Salas is a player the Braves have been waiting on to bust out offensively. But he hit only .243 in 2003 with 5 home runs and 23 RBI in only 235 at bats. The switch hitting Salas looks like a power hitter, but he just completed his fifth full minor league season and still has yet to show consistent power. He'll occasionally hit a ball very far, but has only 16 career home runs in almost 900 minor league at bats. 2004 could be a final shot for Salas to prove he has a chance to be a solid prospect.

The other switch hitting catcher on the 2003 Myrtle Beach Pelicans was Brayan Pena, who showed signs he may be a solid prospect with a .294 batting average. Pena battled back after a mediocre season in Macon in 2002 following a season in 2001 in which he won the Appalachian League Batting Crown with a .370 batting average. Pena hit only two home runs, so he's proven he's not a home run hitter with only 6 career home runs. But his .280 batting average and his ability to hit from both sides of the plate make him an interested prospect. Defensively, Pena is getting better and has a very good work ethic.

Even though Miguel Bernard had only 107 at bats for the Rome Braves, he opened some eyes with some productive offense. Bernard hit .308 with 17 RBI and had some clutch hits for Rome's stretch drive. Bernard's biggest strength, however, is his defense. He is the best in the system at blocking balls in the dirt and may also be the best at throwing out baserunners. Bernard has been in the organization since 1998, but may have done enough in 2003 to warrant another chance. It took Eddie Perez eight years in the minor leagues before he got to Atlanta, and Bernard may fit in the same category as a late bloomer at catcher.

Without a doubt, the best catching prospect in the organization is Brian McCann, who hit .290 with 12 homers and 71 RBI in 424 at bats. McCann showed great power from the left side, even though his home run total tailed off in the second half of the season. But he hit several huge home runs in the postseason to re-establish himself as a legit power threat. Defensively, McCann got raves from his pitching staff for calling games. He also got much better at throwing runners out at second base. McCann will get a huge test in Myrtle Beach in 2004. But if he continues his development, Brian could be 3-4 years away from taking over as the Atlanta starting catcher.

Atlanta's supplemental draft choice in the 2003 draft had a very impressive debut in the Gulf Coast League. Jarrod Saltalammachia hit .239 with 2 home runs and 14 RBI in 134 at bats. "Salty Dog" also had a home run in the playoffs to help lead the GCL Braves win the league title. Jarrod had a wrist problem that limited his time at catcher, but the Braves were still impressed with his raw tools behind the plate. Saltalammachia will move up to Rome in 2004 for his first full season in pro baseball.

C.J. Bressoud was the Braves 26th round draft choice out of North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia. He signed too late to play for one of the rookie league teams, so he'll make his debut in 2004. Bressoud did work out with the Rome team for several weeks, and the Braves were able to tell that they got a steal in the 26th round. Bressoud had threatened to go to college, which allowed him to slip to the Braves so late in the draft. If he does well in spring training and extended spring training, Bressoud could be Danville's starting catcher in 2004.

With Pena and Bernard being long term candidates as potential major league backups, and McCann and Saltalammachia being top level prospects, the Braves have good depth at catcher in the minor leagues. However, you can expect them to seek a catcher again in the top ten rounds of the 2004 draft. The Braves haven't had to worry about catcher much over the past several seasons with Javy Lopez holding down the position, but now that he is either on his way out or toward the end of his Braves career, the position is a little more important. With so many young pitching prospects, it's also imperative that the Braves have a good group of young catchers, especially English-speaking catchers who can communicate with many of the pitchers.

Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show" every week during the regular season on television stations throughout the southeast. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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