The presence of a young catcher does not diminish the importance of having a solid backup. So as Brian McCann heads into his second full season in the big leagues, it's crucial for the Braves to have depth at the positioin.
From all accounts, veteran Todd Pratt will not return. The soon-to-be 40-year-old hit only .207 this past season with 4 home runs and 19 RBI in 62 games. Defensively, Pratt looked slow behind the plate and was unable to block many errant pitches. He was a solid leader, which is one of the reasons the Braves brought him in, but it's obvious he's at the end of his career.
The most obvious choice as a backup is switch-hitting Brayan Pena, who will turn 25 in January. Pena will be a cheaper option, and he's to the point in his minor league career where he either needs to stick with the Braves or move on. Pena just spent his second season in Triple-A, and after another solid offensive season he proved he was ready.
Pena hit .302 in 87 games in Richmond, while he hit .268 in his 41 at bats in the big leagues. His average in Triple-A was not a surprise. Pena is a career .303 hitter in the minor leagues in his six seasons. There's not much power in his bat, as he only has 9 home runs in the minors in 1695 at bats, but he's a spray hitter that doesn't strike out a lot (175 career strikeouts) and gets on base at a pretty good clip.
There have been some questions in the past about Pena's defense, but he reportedly made great strides this season in Richmond. Pena's defense might get exposed more if he were a regular, but as a backup the Braves might be okay with him there. With Chino Cadahia now on the major league coaching staff, Pena might even get better. Cadahia helped develop Pudge Rodriguez into a future Hall of Famer as a coach in the Rangers' system many years ago.
So as long as the Braves are confident enough in Pena's defense, expect him to get the chance at a job. The Braves might bring in a solid Quad-A catcher (maybe minor league free agent Robby Hammock?) to be in Richmond in case Pena struggles or McCann gets hurt during the season. Chances are Carlos Mendez and Dax Norris, the two veteran catchers that played last year in Richmond, will not be back. So either way it'll be important to bring in a good catcher with at least some big league experience for the Richmond roster.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Atlanta's top prospect, still needs a bit more time in the minors. He's showing now in the Arizona Fall League that he can, in fact, still hit. And if he plays well in the minors, either in Triple-A Richmond or back in Double-A with Mississippi, the Braves may not be afraid to call him up if needed. But with Pena ahead of him and him still needing more time, don't expect ‘Salty' to compete for the backup job – at least not yet.
If there are still concerns about Pena's defense, they may look toward the free agent market to bring in a veteran, so that Pena can get more experience in Triple-A. This seems unlikely, however, with the financial constraints that will be on the club this winter. But it's still possible that several veterans could interest the team.
A few to keep in mind include Javy Lopez, Atlanta's starting catcher from 1994-2003. Lopez hit .251 in 94 games this past season between Baltimore and Boston. He'll be 36 next month, so his chances of staying in the big leagues will be only as a reserve. Perhaps the braves will see if he can be a backup to McCann, along with playing an occasional first base.
Maybe Mike Lieberthal would interest the Braves. He's not returning to Philadelphia as a starter, and at 35 years old his days as a starter may be finished. Lieberthal hit .273 with 9 home runs and 36 RBI in his 67 games.
Paul Bako and Henry Blanco are two former Braves' backups, who were coincidentally traded for one another a few years ago, that could come back. But Blanco had such a great season with the Cubs filling in for Michael Barrett that he might cost too much.
Todd Greene and Mike Redmond are two other free agents that have done well against the Braves in the past. Plus, Greene is a Georgia kid that played at Georgia Southern, and the Braves seem to always have interest in players with ties to their home state. Greene could possibly be brought in as a non-roster player with an invitation to spring training. He's the type of catcher that could be decent insurance for Brayan Pena.
With the chance that Daryle Ward, a left-handed hitter, could be brought back to backup Adam LaRoche at first base, it would not hurt if the backup catcher could play first and hit right-handed. LaRoche is probably past his platoon days, but it never hurt to have a right-handed hitting first baseman available in reserve. Pena can play first in a pinch, and that might improve his chances of winning the job.
Pena is the favorite to win the job, and it would almost be a shock if he is not given the chance next March. But do not be surprised if the Braves bring in a veteran, even without a guarantee, as a security blanket for Pena. It never hurts to have veterans around, and the right veteran might just be the perfect fit for a small battle in spring training. Even if Pena won the job, a veteran pushing him in March might make him better, and it also might give the Braves a solid backup in Triple-A.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look at the Braves' traditional front office philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves' Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
22. Who will back up McCann in 2007?
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