Pache In CF Mix; Backstops Impress (www.mlb.com)

It was easy to be impressed by what

did after being pressed into an everyday role during last year’s National League Championship Series. But Braves manager Brian Snitker said it’s too early to assume the top prospect will begin this year as Atlanta’s starting center fielder.

“We’ll see how Spring Training goes,” Snitker said. “I love what Pache did. But it’s like you tell all those young guys, ‘You don’t have a baseball card yet.’ So you’ve got to come in and earn your way.”

Pache became a regular in Atlanta’s lineup after a left oblique strain forced Adam Duvall to exit during the second inning of Game 1 of the NLCS. The young outfielder’s previous big league experience consisted of two regular-season games and a few late-inning defensive replacement appearances in the postseason.

But as Pache went 4-for-22 with a double and a homer in the postseason, he gave reason to wonder if he already was the club’s best internal option. His tremendous defensive potential, which was highlighted when he robbed Max Muncy of a homer in Game 5, has never been in doubt.

The question remains whether it is best to allow him to continue playing at the Major League level on an everyday basis. Or would it be better for him to better develop his offensive skills at the Minor League level while the Braves roll the dice on Ender Inciarte, who has declined both offensively and defensively over the past two seasons?

“I’m not going to say it’s a competition or anything like that,” Snitker said. “We’re going to have Spring Training. Everybody is going to get a chance to play a lot. We’ll just see what happens.”

While Snitker might not want to formally describe the position battle as a competition, Pache is coming to Spring Training with a chance to open the season as the Braves center fielder. If he wins the job, Inciarte would become an expensive fourth outfielder, whose primary role would be to serve as a late-inning defensive replacement for Marcell Ozuna.

But if Pache shows he could benefit from more Minor League seasoning, the Braves could either give the center field duties to Inciarte or move Ronald Acuña Jr. to center. Of course, the latter move would require the club to find another corner outfielder.

Pache, who is the game’s No. 12 prospect per MLB Pipeline, hit 11 homers with an .815 OPS over 104 games for Double-A Mississippi in 2019. As his power has finally developed over the past few years, concerns about his offensive capabilities have decreased.

But the 22-year-old outfielder will still have to prove himself as he spends the next few weeks battling Inciarte, who has hit .225 with a .657 OPS over the past two seasons. The three-time Gold Glove Award winner is set to make $8 million in the final year of his contract.

“I think it’s more about seeing where everybody is this spring more than anything,” Snitker said. “We’ll just let the games and the performances dictate what goes on. I don’t really know how else to handle it.”

Catching depth
Most Braves fans are well aware of the cannon possessed by Shea Langeliers, the strong-armed catching prospect who was taken in the first round of the 2019 MLB Draft. Langeliers recorded a pop time of 1.87 seconds while playing in his first Grapefruit League game last year. To put that in context, J.T. Realmuto led MLB with an average pop time of 1.89 seconds in ’20.

But Langeliers and fellow prospect William Contreras aren’t the only young catchers drawing Snitker’s attention. The manager was wowed as he watched those two join Alex Jackson, Logan Brown and Jonathan Morales in completing throwing drills on Saturday morning.

“I don’t know if I’ve been in a Major League camp where I have seen that many guys throw like those guys can,” Snitker said. “It’s unbelievable what those kids are capable of.”

While Langeliers and Contreras seem to have the brightest futures, Morales and Brown are defensively strong prospects capable of reaching the big league level.

Jackson could serve as Atlanta’s backup catcher while Langeliers and Contreras are given a chance to further develop this year.

Arano delayed
Snitker said right-handed reliever Victor Arano had not yet arrived in camp because of a visa issue. Arano was claimed off waivers from the Phillies last month. The 26-year-old hurler posted a 2.73 ERA in 60 appearances for Philadelphia in 2018 and then missed most of ’19 after undergoing arthroscopic right elbow surgery. He was never deemed ready to join what was a bad Phils bullpen last year.

“He’s away from the surgery to where he’s going to be full bore,” Snitker said. “That guy was really good at one time. He’s got a good arm. It will be exciting to see him.”

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