Recently, I wrote about Tucker Barnhart and how he is an interesting asset for the Reds. The colleague he has split most of the catching duties with, Devin Mesoraco, remains a large unknown due to injuries and missed time. Much has been discussed about Mesoraco and his comeback, as well as Wesley Jenkins proposing trading Devin at the trade deadline this year.
That brings us to Stuart Turner, who has not been seen much this year. Let’s take a closer look at the Reds’ third string catcher.
Turner was selected by the Reds in the second round of the 2016 Rule 5 Draft from the Minnesota Twins. As is required for a Rule 5 draft pick to remain in the organization that drafted him, Turner has been on the Red’s 25-man roster the entire year (excluding one DL stint). He’s amassed 43 plate appearances in 20 games. Carrying three catchers on the 25-man roster is unorthodox, let alone during a rebuilding year with a farm system full of unproven prospects waiting in the minor leagues. What is it that the Reds saw in Turner that spurred them to not only draft him, but also continue to use a valuable roster spot for him?
Before he was drafted to the Queen City, Stuart Turner was selected by the Twins in the third round of the 2013 June amateur draft out of Mississippi. In rookie ball he put up Barnhart-esq numbers, hitting .264/.340/.380/.721. Moving up to high-A ball Turner had similar production, matching his 8.5% walk rate but losing a bit of batting average. He was again promoted to start the 2015 season, moving to AA where he had a bit of a power outage. Turner’s ISO fell from .126 to .083 and he also lost more batting average. His strong walk rate of 11.9% helped buoy production, but an increasing K% paired with the drop in power and average was a step backwards.
After the 2015 season, Turner ranked as a middle tier prospect for the Twins, with John Sickels at minorleagueball.com grading him C+ and saying, “excellent defender…Might hit some eventually, glove will get him to majors at least as a backup.” Dan Farnsworth at FanGraphs also praised Turner’s defense, with his Field tool rating at 55/60/65 and his Throw tool at 60/60/60. Stuart did see a nice uptick in runners caught stealing in 2015, jumping from 32% to over 38%.
One other interesting part of Turner’s game that was called out was his pitch framing abilities. While the Twins viewed him as a “solid receiver,” Baseball Prospectus had him as the fourth worst in the minor leagues (based on available data). Based on his small sample this year, he has been below average but still much better than Mesoraco and Barnhart, who rank ninth and seventh worst in baseball in 2017, respectively, also according to Baseball Prospectus data.
In 2016, Turner showed resiliency offensively, hitting .239/.322/.363/.686 with a 101 wRC+ in his age-24 season at AA. While his BB% declined and K% again increased a bit, Turner again showed he can get on-base at an average clip and that there is power to be tapped.
Heading into the 2017 season, the Twins left Stuart Turner off their 40-man roster. Because Turner met the age criteria for eligibility for the Rule 5 draft, the Reds decided to take a chance on him for the small, flat fee of $50,000.
It’s easy to see how the Reds front office would, in December, see picking up a close-to-major-league ready catcher appealing, especially for a small financial obligation. Preparing for the worst-case scenario of a 2017 without Mesoraco makes sense, and with Turner’s strong glove and potentially serviceable bat, it was worth the investment. Fast forward to July, and the fact that Turner only has 43 plate appearances while holding a 25-man roster spot for the majority of the year, the situation has become more questionable.
2017 did not offer much hope for the Reds in the win/loss column. There were, however, expectations to play highly touted prospects and determine who the frontrunners are to become major-league contributors. A roster spot is a crucial component to managing a revolving door of young talent. Despite the fact that the offense has performed well this year, there still needs to be a focus on getting young players major league experience.
With the Reds starting rotation really struggling, one of the many downside effects has been the bullpen leading the league in innings pitched. This has placed more importance on carrying enough relievers. With Turner taking up an IF/OF bench spot, the Reds have compensated with positional versatility from players like Scooter Gennett, Arismendy Alcantara, Patrick Kivlehan and Jose Peraza.
The results haven’t been optimal. For example, rather than giving a roster spot to a homegrown, 23-year-old on-base machine and having him split time in the outfield, that spot has been filled with a backup to a backup who has hit .179/.233/.256. As a result, Jesse Winker has accumulated only 20 (!) plate appearances and the Reds are no closer to understanding what his major league production can or will be.
Winker is a player who has maybe been more directly affected than anyone. People expected to see more of Winker this season. If the Reds weren’t forced to keep Stuart Turner in the dugout, Winker would have had more opportunity. Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler’s strong seasons have factored in. But even with both of them performing well at the plate, there is always opportunity to split starts and get everyone playing time. Dilson Herrera has not been hitting great at AAA, but the Reds could have experimented with him. Major league at-bats in a rebuilding year with no pressure for immediate success are valuable. They are slipping away as the year goes on. While this isn’t all the fault of what the Reds have done with Stuart Turner’s spot, that situation is certainly not making the roster any more flexible.
The fact the Reds have held onto Turner this long, as well as their recent release of AAA catcher Rob Brantly, who hit .298/.335/.435 for Louisville this year, makes me think Stuart Turner will be in the Reds organization next year. Turner has the ability to make it as a big league back-up catcher if he can adjust to major league pitching. On paper, he really does remind me a lot of Tucker Barnhart, given they are both strong defensively, get on base, but will not blow you away with power.
Keeping Stuart Turner around gives the Reds protection from another Mesoraco injury and flexibility to make a trade if the right offer presents itself. Given Chris Okey’s performance this year and Tyler Stephenson’s recent injury, it’s unclear how long the bridge will need to be to get to the next long-term catcher. The Reds are hoping that the long-term benefits of drafting and keeping Turner will end up outweighing the cost of a lost roster spot during a year designed for exploratory rebuilding.