The Braves find themselves in an interesting situation at catcher. They have an incumbent starter in Johnny Estrada who lost his playing time to a rookie due mostly to injury. That’s not particularly unusual, except that Estrada hit .300 and made the All-Star team in 2004, in his first full season, is still fairly young, and is still fairly cheap. At the same time, there are real questions about his trade value not only because of the injury but because he lacks power, and most teams want their catchers to hit home runs. Add in that he’s really slow, even for a catcher, and the persistent thought that 2004 was a fluke year, and the Braves might have trouble getting much for him.
At the same time, is Brian McCann really ready? As a hitter, he was better than Estrada was this year, but not as good as Estrada in 2004. He seems to have good defensive instincts and skills but had trouble throwing, while Estrada was much better at that phase of the game this year. It might be better for McCann to spend a half of a season in AAA polishing his skills, but how do you put him back on the farm when he’s seen the show? It’s a little different than a situation where you have a farmhand who’s probably better than the incumbent when that farmhand has already come up to the majors and been better than the incumbent.
You could continue the job-sharing arrangement that worked acceptably in 2005. You need to play two catchers anyway, and why not have them play 100 games and 62 rather than 130 and 32? Keep them fresh. Well, one problem is that McCann is probably the better player and yet will make a lot less money; Estrada should be up for arbitration. Another is that it’s not an ideal job-sharing arrangement since they can’t really platoon, because McCann hits lefty and Estrada, while a switch-hitter, is terrible against lefties. Plus it won’t do Estrada’s trade value much good if he winds up with 80 games, 240 plate appearances.
Another idea would be to simply make one the starter and the other a standard backup, a 120 game/42 game split. In that case, one man would probably be assigned one pitcher to work with. That could be McCann with Smoltz, since Smoltz likes pitching to McCann, but McCann is the better player. So then Estrada could work with one guy, maybe Hudson. But then you run into the problem again of the backup making ten times what the starter gets and that’s really a bad situation.
So if McCann is on the major league roster, he should be the starter. And if that’s the case, Estrada should be traded because it doesn’t make sense to keep him around to back up for $2 million a season. Then you need to find a backup to McCann, or to Estrada if you decide to give him another year while McCann gets seasoning. There are two incumbent backup catchers on the 40-man roster. Eddie Perez is expected to retire, likely to take a job with the organization. His arm has apparently completely given out and his bat already had. Brayan Peña is the other backup. I like him offensively as a backup. His combination of high averages (though anybody could hit .210 as a backup catcher, or .340, that’s just what the role’s like), a little doubles power, and good (for-a-catcher) speed, plus being a switch-hitter, makes him a nifty backup for the slugger McCann projects as. I don’t know about how good of a hitter he is from the right side, though it’s hard to believe he’d be worse than Estrada. The big problem is that he can’t throw at all, or at least couldn’t during his time in the majors. If he and McCann are the catchers baserunners will run wild.
Still, I think that that’s the most likely outcome, McCann backed up by Peña. What I would like is for them to work with Eddie Perez. Give Eddie a job as a coach with the major league team. If you don’t feel comfortable with a full-time catching coach, you could let him be the third base coach (if Fredi Gonzalez leaves to be a manager somewhere) or the first-base coach (with Hubbard moving to third) or the bullpen coach (if Bobby Dews retires or moves to the front office). But let him work with the young catchers on their throwing and fielding. It’s what he’d be good at.