Devin Mesoraco recently began his rehab assignment in Louisville, going 1-4 with a grand slam, 2 walks and 2 strikeouts in his first game. With Mesoraco succumbing to another injury half-way through his comeback campaign, who knows how long he will be able to hold up and stay on the active roster. Even though it is “only” a shoulder strain, there is no telling how long it will linger or if it will lead to other complications. That being said, I thought it would be fitting to talk a bit about Tucker Barnhart.
Barnhart was selected in the tenth round of the 2009 draft and made his Reds debut in 2014. His career minor league line of .260/.341/.356/.697 shows a decent hit and on-base ability but a big lack of power. His offense was bolstered by strong defense, highlighted by throwing out 41% of potential base stealers.
During his time with the Reds, Barnhart has played the role of both backup and starter. He was used sporadically in 21 games in 2014 as a third catcher while Mesoraco had his breakout campaign and Bryan Pena amassed -0.6 WAR as the backup. Mesoraco got injured in 2015, allowing Barnhart to take over full-time backup duties with Pena still starting. Another injury to Mesoraco in 2016 gave Barnhart the starter’s role last year, racking 0.9 WAR in 115 games. He has retained the primary catching role this year with Mesoraco easing back into the lineup, earning 1.2 WAR in the first half, good for twelfth in the league for catchers.
The take on Tucker is generally that he is a great backup catcher but probably not a starter. He can handle as many games as needed and improve the defense without giving up much offensively, which is everything a team can want from a bench player. The question that has arisen in recent years with Mesoraco being hurt is whether or not he can/should be the Reds everyday catcher.
The following numbers compare Tucker with the average MLB catcher’s season since 1970, as well as the breakout between starters and backups. The determination of backup vs starter was made purely based off plate appearances, which will be inaccurate for a handful of instances due to injuries but should not affect the numbers given the large sample size.
[Stats from FanGraphs.com; all MLB catchers’ seasons 1970-2017, minimum 100 PA]
Tucker compares very favorably to backup catchers but does not quite stack up with the starting catchers, at least offensively. Despite his strong hit and on-base ability, his lack of power is where he falls behind. Defensively, he ranks ahead of the starting catchers and is currently posting the third best defensive campaign according to FanGraphs defensive metric. As a slightly below average catcher overall, the numbers bear out the narrative that surrounds Tucker. If the Reds can find a way to keep Tucker in an expanded backup role, that would provide the most benefit to the team.
Going forward, the future is as clear as mud for this Red’s team, with the catcher’s spot proving no exception. There are still moving pieces all over the organization and with the trade deadline only a couple weeks away, everybody is potential trade bait during another potential last-place finish. Four of the bottom five teams in terms of WAR production from the catcher position are in the playoff race, as the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Nationals and Red Sox have all struggled to find a reliable backstop.
The market appears to be there if the right offer presents itself, but the question is, are the Reds prepared for life without Barnhart? As far as top prospects go, Chris Okey is struggling at Daytona while Tyler Stephenson is performing well in Dayton, but neither is close to ready for the big leagues. Having recently released minor league catcher Rob Brantley, the organization appears committed to holding onto Rule 5 draft pick Stuart Turner for the duration of the year. Even so, a combination of a banged up Mesoraco and unproven Turner does not inspire much confidence.
As we sit now, it appears that Tucker is an important part of this Reds team that provides stability and slightly below average production. If Devin Mesoraco was more of a sure thing and Stuart Turner had shown some signs of life in his limited action, trading Tucker this year would seem a bit more realistic. Given that he still has three years of team control left, I would expect Barnhart to remain on the team for at least another year. Seeing that he does not compare favorably with the average starting catcher, an extension down the road does not seem very likely, as he would probably earn a decent contract as a free agent. Depending on how quickly the Reds can become competitive and how confident they are in the other options, Barnhart will remain an interesting asset going forward.