A.J. and Flowers: Braves have solid duo behind dish

The Braves have stockpiled the largest supply of young pitchers and pitching prospects in baseball, which makes the catching position even more important than usual.

It was one reason the Braves traded away Christian Bethancourt this winter, since they could live with his stalled offensive development but not sometimes sloppy defense, and especially not the lack of attention to details and developing relationships with young pitchers who can benefit greatly from a steadying presence behind the plate.

It was a big reason the Braves re-signed 39-year-old A.J. Pierzynski to another one-year deal — not just because he hit .300 with the fifth-highest OPS among MLB catchers in 400 or more plate appearances, but because most Braves pitchers gave him high marks for helping get them through tough spots and teaching them about hitters and tendencies. And about how to trust your catcher when you’re not certain about the right pitch but he is.

A.J. Pierzynski hit .300 with the fifth-best OPS among major league catchers in 2015. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

A.J. Pierzynski hit .300 with the fifth-best OPS among major league catchers in 2015. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

And it was also a big reason they signed Tyler Flowers, a former Braves prospect and White Sox backup to Pierzynski, and a guy who, over the past three seasons as a lineup regular, developed into a strong defensive catcher regarded as one of, if not the best, pitch-framers in baseball. That’s something that all pitchers, young and old, appreciate.

So, now what? Who’s the primary guy?

Pierzynski ended up displacing the struggling Bethancourt early last season and started 104 games, far more than most expected when the Braves signed him a year ago as a backup and mentor for Bethancourt. He held up well to the workload despite his age and a lot of lumps and nicks throughout the season. But the Braves didn’t think they could or should count on A.J. to handle a similar workload again, as an 18-year veteran at age 39. And they wanted to make sure that they had a catcher who could either split the duties or take over as the primary guy if need be — without sacrificing defense, leadership and game-calling.

Enter Flowers, a Marietta native who was non-tendered by the White Sox, drew interest from several teams, but jumped at the chance to sign a two-year, $5.3 million contract — plus third-year, $4 million team option and up to $1.5 million annual in incentives — to play for the hometown Braves, to live full-time at the home he and his wife were having built in nearby Milton for their growing family (they just had their third child).

“I believe in the (Braves’) plan, believe in the organization and the people,” Flowers said on the December day he signed. “I’m on board ready to help the young players develop into what this organization was when I was coming up. This was an organization that was dominant. The expectations are to get back to that, and I’m glad they want me to be a part of it.”

Braves general manager John Coppolella already likes what he’s heard about Flowers working in recent weeks with young pitchers.

“It was a big thing for us,” Coppolella said of the signing. “Flowers ranked, I think, as the second-best framer. That will really help our young arms as they keep getting better and start to come through our system. Just as with A.J., this guy cares greatly. He works with our guys, wants them to get better. I think it’s a huge factor for us.”

The Braves have some promising catching prospects in the low minors, but none who figure to be ready for the majors soon.

“Honestly, in terms of prospects, the biggest need we have long-term would be young catching,” Coppolella said. “We don’t have anybody that’s close right now. We’ve got guys that we like who are two or three years away, but as far as for real impact guys, we don’t have anybody close. So to be able to bring back A.J. and to add Flowers on what I hope ends up being a three-year deal, is a big thing for us.”

Braves free-agent signee Tyler Flowers (left) has a reputation as an outstanding pitch-framer and strong defensive catcher and game-caller. (AP file photo)

Braves free-agent signee Tyler Flowers (left) has a reputation as an outstanding pitch-framer and strong defensive catcher and game-caller. (AP file photo)

Pierzynski and Flowers will split the duties, although the Braves haven’t said exactly how the breakdown would go, or if that’s even been determined. Pierzynski indicated at the recent FanFest that something close to an even split of the games might work well.

“We’ve talked about it. From everything I’ve been told, we’ll see how it goes with the playing time,” Pierzynski said. “I don’t know the answer, no one’s really defined that and I haven’t asked that question. So whatever they need me to do. It’s kind of the same thing I told them last year – if you need me to play 120 games, it’s fine, or if you need me to play 40 games. Just let me know ahead of time and we’ll go with it. Just keep me informed, and as long as we do that we’ll be fine.”

Then I asked him if his role might end up being closer to what he thought he was getting into when he first signed with the Braves 13 months ago.

“Yeah, we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “I think it’s a little bit more (expected entering the season) than it was last year based on (Pierzynsk’s 2015) production. I don’t know. I think in an ideal world, from what I was told, 80 and 80 (even split of games caught between him and Flowers) is good, but I don’t know. If something happens, you just never know. It’s such a fluid situation. Baseball is so up and down, you just never know what’s going to happen.”

Flowers, 30, was a backup to Pierzynski for parts of four seasons with the White Sox through 2012, and saw his role grow after A.J. left. Flowers is a .223 career hitter with a .665 OPS in parts of seven seasons, and had 24 homers and 89 RBIs in 803 plate appearances (239 games) over the past two seasons for the White Sox.

“It’s great for us (young pitchers),” said Braves starter Matt Wisler, who was impressed after throwing to Flowers a few times recently. “I mean, we’ve got two (catchers) like that, who’ve been around the game for a while. They know hitters, too. (Flowers) will know the American League hitters, so when we face those teams we’ll have a better idea. And A.J. kind of knows them, as well.

“Two guys that know the game. It’s just good to have veteran guys…. Somebody said (White Sox ace) Chris Sale didn’t want (Flowers) to go. To have a guy like Chris Sale give a catcher credit like that, it’s huge. I think it’s going to be a good working relationship this year.”

Gordon Beckham was a longtime teammate of both catchers with the White Sox. He knows them well, and believes their different personalities and differences as players will make for a good Braves catching tandem in 2016.

“You’ve got to have some fire,” Beckham said, “but you also have got to understand when to kind of rein it back and be there for one of the pitchers and be there for one of the pitchers and just be able to talk to them and stuff like that, and know how they tick. Tyler catches a good game. I’ve watched him for the last few years. He really does, he catches a good game, he frames really well. And A.J., obviously he brings the big bat and he does a lot of good things defensively.

“So I think they’ll be a good complement for each other. As soon as they (White Sox) non-tendered Tyler I thought the Braves would be a good fit for him. I’m glad he (signed). I like the (makeup of the) team. I do.”

Beckham last played with Pierzynski in 2012, and might not recognize the mature-leader version of the player, who was long known for being confrontational and cranky. The Braves didn’t see that side of him much, if at all, in 2015, and their young pitchers seemed to enjoy working with him as much as he says he liked working with them.

“It was fun,” Pierzynski said. “It’s one of the reasons I came back here, because of guys like Wisler and some of the other kids we had, Folty (Mike Foltynewicz) and some of these guys, (Matt) Marksberry and these kids, that got better as the year went on. And to continue that into spring training this year and into the season is what you … when you become older you kind of learn that, hey, I’ve got to help these kids. Hopefully they’ll learn something from what you do every day and how you go about it. And then watching them grow and then seeing the moment, like with Wisler last year near the end you almost, like, saw something in his mind click. Like, ‘I can compete.’”

Wisler said, “To go into a second year with a guy, it’s always nice. It’s easy to get on the same page after working together for three months together last year, talking through stuff like that. It’s definitely going to be an advantage having A.J. back, a guy who knows everybody, knows the staff. It should be good.”

• Let’s close with this gem by the mighty Wilco, which did this song and so many others during their incredible show Wednesday night at Tabernacle in Atlanta. (They’re playing the same place Thursday, for those who missed it.)

“HANDSHAKE DRUGS” by Wilco

Wilco

Wilco

I was chewin’ gum for something to do
The blinds were being pulled down on the dew
Inside, out of love, what a laugh
I was looking for you

Saxophones started blowing me down
I was buried in sound
Taxicabs were driving me around
To the handshake drugs I bought downtown
To the handshake drugs I bought downtown

They were translated poorly, I felt like a clown
I looked like someone I used to know
I felt alright
And if I ever was myself
I wasn’t that night

Oh it’s okay for you to say
What you want from me
I believe that’s the only
Way for me to be, exactly
What you want me to be

Oh it’s okay for you to say
What you want from me
I believe that’s the only
Way for me to be
Exactly what you want me to be

Oh I was chewin’ gum for something to do
The blinds were being pulled down on the dew
Inside, out of love, what a laugh
I was looking for you

Saxophones started blowin’ me down
I was buried in sound
The taxicabs were driving me around
To the handshake drugs I bought downtown
To the handshake drugs I bought downtown

Oh it’s okay for you to say
What you want from me
I believe that’s the only
Way for me to be
Exactly what do you want me to be?
Exactly what do you want me to be?

Felt like a clown
They were translating poorly
I looked like someone
I used to know
And if I ever was myself,
I wasn’t that night

Exactly what do you want me to be?
Exactly what do you want me to be?

 


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