Contreras making case for more ABs: 'It's all about work'

June 2nd, 2022

PHOENIX -- Having too much of anything has usually been viewed as a good problem within the baseball world. But that doesn't mean Braves manager Brian Snitker won't feel some stress as he attempts to manage Ronald Acuña Jr.'s workload while attempting to give William Contreras as many plate appearances as possible, preferably while Acuña is also in the lineup.

How does a backup catcher's playing time have anything to do with how much a superstar outfielder plays? Well, as Contreras tallied three hits, including a pair of doubles, in a 6-0 win over the D-backs on Wednesday afternoon, he provided a reminder of how formidable the Braves' lineup could be with him in it on a regular basis.

"I'm just proud of [Contreras] taking advantage of this opportunity he is getting," Snitker said. "I knew about what he could do offensively. But defensively, he's done a real good job and calmed down so much."

Coming off their ugliest loss of the season, the Braves returned to Chase Field early Wednesday morning and learned Acuña was too sore to play. That wasn't necessarily comforting news. But with Kyle Wright tossing six scoreless innings, Austin Riley hitting a monstrous three-run homer and Contreras doing Contreras things, Atlanta avoided being swept in this three-game series.

Adding to the day's good news, Snitker indicated there is a chance Acuña will play right field on Thursday night. The right fielder's legs were just sore after he played defensively on Arizona's outfield turf on Tuesday.

Now, it remains to be seen how frequently the Braves could put Contreras and Acuña in the lineup at the same time over the next few weeks.

Contreras, who served as the catcher while Travis d'Arnaud rested on Wednesday, is hitting .302 with seven homers and a 1.094 OPS through his first 19 games (70 plate appearances of the season). These are numbers that beg for him to be in the lineup on a daily basis.

Could Contreras see more time as a catcher?

Impressed with how significantly Contreras has improved defensively behind the plate, Snitker said there's a chance he could serve as the starting catcher on a more frequent basis. d'Arnaud is the superior defender and will remain the primary catcher, but there could be a benefit to resting d'Arnaud more frequently as the hot summer months elapse.

"We might be able to better distribute a little more evenly the catching load and keep them both swinging the bat really well," Snitker said.

Why not make Contreras the DH when he is not catching?

Having returned from a torn right ACL on April 28, Acuña still isn't ready to play defensively on an everyday basis. So there will be days he will need to be the DH. And when this happens, to keep Marcell Ozuna's bat in the lineup, the Braves will need to occasionally place him in left field, despite the fact he is a defensive liability.

Ozuna tallied a pair of hits, including one ahead of Riley's 439-foot homer in the seventh, and is now hitting .286 with six homers over his past 17 games. He also needs to play on an everyday basis, preferably as the DH. But you can't do this every day when Acuña needs to occasionally be the DH.

With Acuña and Ozuna both needing time as the DH, this limits the opportunities for Contreras, who got a start as a left fielder on May 23 against the Phillies. When asked how he evaluated the performance, Snitker said, "He looked like somebody who hasn't played out there before."

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 called another great game, and I can't say enough about what he has done at the plate."

Who else could Contreras replace?

Now that Michael Harris II has been called up to improve the 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 to be their primary center fielder. This might help Duvall, who is hitting .191 with a .529 OPS this year.

Duvall hit 38 homers last year and the Braves remain hopeful he will eventually turn things around. If he doesn't, the club would have a vacant spot in its outfield mix. But if Contreras were to fill that void, the outfield defense might again prove problematic.

Whatever happens, Contreras has given the Braves a good problem and hope that their lineup might soon start living up to expectations on a consistent basis.

"Continued success isn't something that maintains itself," Contreras said. "It's something that is achieved through continuous work and adapting. It's been great it's been working out the past couple weeks, but it's all about work."