PHOENIX — Having too much of everything was usually considered a good problem in the baseball world. But that doesn’t mean Braves manager Brian Snitker won’t feel stress trying to manage Ronald Acuña Jr.’s workload while trying to give William Contreras as many plate appearances as possible, preferably while Acuña is also in the lineup is.
How does a backup catcher’s playtime have anything to do with how much a superstar outfielder plays? Well, when Contreras scored three goals, including two doubles, in a 6-0 win over the D-Backs on Wednesday afternoon, he was a reminder of just how impressive the Braves’ lineup could be with him on a regular basis.
“I’m just proud of it [Contreras] He took advantage of this opportunity he’s getting,” Snitker said. “I knew what he could do offensively. But defensively he did a really good job and calmed down so much.”
After their ugliest loss of the season, the Braves returned to Chase Field early Wednesday morning and learned that Acuña was too sore to play. This wasn’t exactly comforting news. But with Kyle Wright pitching six scoreless innings, Austin Riley hitting a monstrous three-run homer and doing Contreras Contreras things, Atlanta avoided being swept in that three-game series.
Snitker added to the good news of the day that there is a chance Acuña will play on the right field on Thursday night. The right fielder’s legs only hurt after playing defensively on the Arizona outfield on Tuesday.
Now it remains to be seen how many times the Braves could line up Contreras and Acuña at the same time over the next few weeks.
Contreras, who served as a catcher while Travis d’Arnaud rested Wednesday, hits .302 with seven home runs and 1,094 OPS in his first 19 games (70 plate appearances of the season). These are numbers asking him to be in the lineup daily.
Could Contreras see more time as a catcher?
Impressed by how much Contreras has improved defensively behind the plate, Snitker said there’s a chance he could serve as a starting catcher more often. d’Arnaud is the superior defender and will remain the main catcher but it could be an advantage to rest d’Arnaud more often as the hot summer months pass.
“Maybe we can spread the catching load a bit more evenly and make sure they’re both swinging the racquet really well,” Snitker said.
Why not make Contreras the DH if he doesn’t catch?
Acuña returned from a right cruciate ligament tear on April 28 and is still not ready to play defensively on a daily basis. So there will be days when he has to be the DH. And when that happens, the Braves occasionally have to place him in left field to keep Marcell Ozuna’s slugger in the lineup, despite being a defensive liability.
Ozuna hit two, including one before Riley’s 439-foot homer in the seventh, and now hits .286 in his last 17 games with six homers. He also has to play daily, preferably as a DH. But you can’t do this every day when Acuña has to be the DH occasionally.
With Acuña and Ozuna both needing time as DHs, that limits options for Contreras, who started at left fielder against the Phillies on May 23. When asked how he rated the performance, Snitker said, “He looked like someone who had never played there.”
But you have to find opportunities for guys like Contreras, who has recorded an extra base hit in 16.9 percent (12 of 71) of his plate appearances.
“I can’t say enough about him,” Wright said. “He just announced another great game and I can’t say enough about what he did on the plate.”
Who else could Contreras replace?
Now that Michael Harris II has been called up to bolster outfield defense with great plays like the sliding grab he made in Wednesday’s eighth inning, the Braves no longer have to rely on Adam Duvall as their primary midfielder. This could help Duvall, who hits .191 with .529 OPS this year.
Duvall hit 38 home runs last year and the Braves continue to hope he will eventually turn things around. If he doesn’t, the club would have an empty spot in their outfield mix. But if Contreras were to fill that gap, outfield defense could again prove problematic.
Whatever happens, Contreras has created a good problem for the Braves and hopes their lineup will soon live up to expectations on a consistent basis.
“Continued success is not something that sustains itself,” said Contreras. “It is something that is achieved through continuous work and adaptation. It’s been great that it’s worked out the last few weeks, but it’s all about work.”