NASHVILLE — Tyler Flowers is coming home, and the Braves no longer need concern themselves about overworking A.J. Pierzynski.
Flowers, who grew up in Marietta and was drafted by the Braves a decade ago, agreed Tuesday a two-year, $5.3 million contract that includes a $4 million team option with a $300,000 buyout. He can also earn up to $1.5 million in incentives each year in the deal.
Flowers, who’ll be 30 in January, will share the catching duties with Pierzynski, who turns 39 on Dec. 30, but is coming off a resurgent season. The Braves will finalize and announce the contract after Flowers passes a physical.
He became a free agent after being non-tendered by the Chicago White Sox last week, and drew interest from several other teams including the Yankees and Rays.
“But of course, Atlanta was my first choice,” said Flowers, whose parents live about five minutes from the Braves’ new ballpark under construction in Cobb County. “Everything the Braves had to say and everything they did between when I was non-tendered and now, made me want to be a part of what they’re doing, wanted to be part of it.
“They kind of enlightened me on what the (franchise) plan was. I believe in the plan, believe in the organization and the people. 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.”
Flowers continued to make his permanent home in Woodstock, north of Atlanta, after the Braves traded him to the White Sox in December 2008, back when Brian McCann was entrenched as Braves catcher. Flowers and his wife, Nancy — they were high-school sweethearts at Blessed Trinity in Roswell — have two children and a third on the way.
Flowers was already building a new home in Milton before signing with the Braves.
Pierzynski was re-signed last month to a one-year, $3 million deal. The signing of Flowers spells a likely end to Christian Bethancourt’s Braves career as the former top prospect is out of minor-league options and expected to be traded.
The Braves’ new front-office regime, headed by president of baseball operations John Hart, wasn’t willing to go into another season hoping that Bethancourt would reach his potential and be the second part of their catching duo. Not when their other catcher is 39 and could get hurt, requiring someone to step in and be the regular starter for an extended period.
“Exactly,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said.
“I love (Bethancourt’s) talent and skill set,” Hart had said earlier Tuesday, before news of the Flowers signing leaked. “And at the end of it, we’ve talked about, if we got another catcher are we capable of carrying three? Is there a level of versatility for the guys we would get?
“I mean, there’s a lot of different (factors). And you consider what would happen if we put (Bethancourt) out there (on the trade market). There’s probably value…. These are all options that we’re considering, for a very talented guy that …. sometimes, you know, the time just doesn’t play out.”
Flowers became a free agent last week when non-tendered by the Chicago White Sox, after batting .239 with nine home runs, 39 RBIs and a .652 OPS in 361 plate appearances (112 games) last season. Many in Chicago were surprised by the move, when Flowers had been projected to make about $3.5 in arbitration in 2016 if the White Sox had kept him.
Instead, he’ll draw a $2 million salary in 2016, $3 million in 2017 — the first year in the Braves’ new ballpark — and have a $4 million team option for 2018.
Considered a solid defensive catcher, Flowers has is known for his pitch-framing ability. The big (6 feet 4, 245 pounds) right-handed hitter has a .239 career average with 46 homers, 142 RBIs and a .665 OPS in 431 games over parts of seven seasons, all with the White Sox.
In 2014, Flowers posted career-highs in batting average (.241), doubles (16), home runs (15) and RBIs (50), in addition to games played (127) and plate appearances (442).
“Behind Bethancourt we’re pretty lean (at catcher),” Hart said leading up to the Flowers signing. “We just don’t have the upper-level catching (in the minor league system). And as much as we love A.J., he’s 39. Hell, he might play until he’s 42; he might be Carlton Fisk, and I mean that sincerely. You don’t know.
“But at some point we’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve got to discuss (adding) some catching.”