In the days leading up to Opening Day, we’ll be previewing The State Of The Reds at every single position on the field. Check out the previous installments of our Redleg Nation 2018 Season Preview series:
With the responsibility of managing an entire pitching staff, framing pitches, and throwing out runners while maintaining productivity on offense, catcher is undoubtedly the most demanding position on the baseball field. The Reds, for all their faults over the years, have actually received pretty solid production from their catchers recently, as guys like Jason LaRue, Javier Valentin, David Ross, Ryan Hanigan, and Ramon Hernandez each had a solid season or two behind the plate. None of them were Johnny Bench (or the great Corky Miller) behind the plate, but then again, who is?
Beyond LaRue, however, the team largely struggled to develop long-term catching prospects, opting to sign or trade for veterans like Ross and Hernandez. Poor drafting played a huge part in that (anyone remember Dane Sardinha?). That changed when the team took Devin Mesoraco with their first-round pick in 2007. Since then, the Reds have developed another homegrown player with a mid-round selection (Tucker Barnhart) and taken two others with high picks (Tyler Stephenson and Chris Okey), giving the organization better talent at the position than it’s had in many years.
Because of the better catching development, the team has been able to weather injuries to Mesoraco the last three years, finding their new catcher of the future in Barnhart. But if the rebuild consisting of players being sent to the disabled list seemingly every other day has taught fans anything, it’s that you can never count on anything. Having a backup plan — and several backup plans for the backup plan — is imperative. Let’s go over the blueprints and take a look at the Reds’ organizational depth chart at catcher.
The Opening Day Starter: Tucker Barnhart
Barnhart has gone from a projected career backup catcher with a weak bat to locking down the starting position with the Reds for the foreseeable future. He received his first extended look in 2016 when Mesoraco went down due to shoulder surgery and proved himself as a big-league player, hitting .257/.323/.379 with an 83 wRC+ in 420 plate appearances and playing strong defense. His 0.9 fWAR indicated he was roughly living up to expectations as a backup catcher. But when Mesoraco missed significant time again in 2017, Barnhart took firm control of the job.
He improved at the plate, primarily due to taking his plate discipline from solid to above average. The switch-hitter increased his walk rate from 8.6% to 9.9% and produced a .270/.347/.403 slash line for the season. He’s not the power hitter Mesoraco is — Barnhart has seven home runs in each of the last two seasons to go along with 23 and 24 doubles in 2016 and ’17, respectively — but the 26-year-old more than held his own at the plate. But behind the dish is where Barnhart truly earned his four-year, $16 million extension this offseason, as well as the starting gig heading into 2018.
Dethroning Yadier Molina, Barnhart became a first-time Gold Glove award winner after the season. He was the first Reds catcher to earn the honor since Bench in 1977 and the team’s first player at any position to win the award since Brandon Phillips in 2013. Among all players in baseball, Barnhart trailed only Andrelton Simmons in defensive WAR. He far outpaced other backstops, as well, with the second-place finisher Manny Pina sitting nearly a full win (1.9) behind Barnhart (2.8). His FanGraphs defensive rating (14.9) was third in the league and first among catchers.
The number one asset Barnhart has behind the plate is his arm, as he threw out 44% of potential base-stealers last season, trailing only Welington Castillo (49%) among regular catchers. He also allowed only four passed balls all year; as a reference point, Mesoraco allowed the same number in 621 fewer innings. The only metric where Barnhart doesn’t rank as highly is pitch framing. Considering everything else he does well, though, it’s hard to get worked up over that, especially since the stat is far from perfect.
By all accounts, Barnhart also excels at managing the pitching staff, playing a key role in the improvements of Luis Castillo, Robert Stephenson, and Sal Romano as last season wore on. That leadership will be crucial for the Reds in the coming years with an organization full of talented arms.
The Backup: Devin Mesoraco
On January 26, 2015, the Reds inked their star catcher to a $28 million extension with hopes he’d be the starter for many seasons to come. Mesoraco was coming off a breakout season in which he hit .273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs and became the team’s first All-Star catcher since Bo Diaz in 1987. His 4.5 fWAR was the highest at his position in team history for any non-Bench player.
Few people would’ve believed he’d be the team’s backup catcher heading into the final year of that deal. Of course, it was impossible to predict Mesoraco would play in only 95 of a possible 486 games in the three seasons after putting the pen to paper. In 2015, a left hip impingement that later required surgery ended his season prematurely. In 2016, he tore the labrum in his right shoulder. Another surgery followed. Later that year, he also had surgery for an impingement to his other hip.
After two operations, he wasn’t ready to start the 2017 season and didn’t debut until May. It was clear the Reds couldn’t count on him as an everyday catcher any longer, and he was set to split time with Barnhart the rest of the year. However, Mesoraco played in only 56 games and hit only .213/.321/.390. He spent time on the DL with a shoulder strain in July, and his season ended on August 14 when he took a fastball to his left foot that broke a bone.
Still only 29, Mesoraco may still have an impact in 2018 in what will likely be his last year in Cincinnati. He showed he still has some power left during his limited playing time last year, hitting six home runs, and has socked a pair of doubles so far in spring training. Getting any sort of valuable production from Mesoraco, even off the bench, would be huge for the Reds, as he’s owed a whopping $13 million in 2018, a figure that will make him difficult to trade even if he stays healthy.
Next in Line: Stuart Turner
Given the beating catchers take behind the plate on a nightly basis, a team always needs someone ready in Triple-A. The Reds lost Chad Wallach to the Marlins through waivers in the offseason, meaning Louisville’s starting backstop will be Stuart Turner. The Reds took him from the Minnesota Twins in the Rule 5 Draft prior to the 2017 season and, per the rules, kept him in the big leagues all season. He can now be optioned to the minor leagues, where he figures to spend most of his time in 2018 if Barnhart and Mesoraco stay healthy.
Turner, a third-round pick out of Ole Miss in 2013, is considered another defense-first catcher. He hit just .134/.182/.244 in the big leagues last season, though it was hard to fault him considering his sporadic playing time (37 games, 89 plate appearances) and the fact that he hadn’t played above Double-A previously. For his minor-league career, he has batted .241/.323/.346 with just 56 doubles and 20 home runs in five seasons, but he still moved up a level every year because of his ability behind the plate.
While no one is expecting Turner to become the Reds’ next starting catcher, he gives the team a nice insurance option in the minor leagues this year. He already has familiarity with the pitching staff after spending all of last season in Cincinnati, which should allow him to step into the backup role if Barnhart or Mesoraco are forced to miss any time.
The Future: Tyler Stephenson & Chris Okey
When Mesoraco went down with his first season-ending injury in 2015, it quickly became apparent how little depth the Reds had at the position beyond Barnhart. To begin remedying that problem, then-general manager Walt Jocketty selected Stephenson with the 11th overall pick in the 2015 draft.
A solid all-around catcher, the 6-foot-4 Stephenson has hit well in his first three minor-league seasons, slashing .267/.347/.380 with 42 doubles and 11 home runs in 743 plate appearances. He has some raw power and could ultimately become a (healthy) Mesoraco-like force in the middle of the Reds’ lineup. Plate discipline is another strength, as Stephenson owns a career 10.8 BB% and he dropped his strikeout rate to 16.7% in 2017.
Health is the only factor holding him back right now, as he’s missed significant time the last two seasons due to a concussion, wrist surgery, and an injury to his thumb ligaments. As a result, he hasn’t played above Low-A Dayton yet (though a rapid ascension to the majors wasn’t expected anyway since he was drafted as a high schooler at the toughest position in the game). Per MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon, Stephenson is healthy and expected to begin 2018 in High-A Daytona.
In 2016, the Reds added another promising prospect to the farm system by taking Chris Okey, another solid hitter, with their second-round draft choice. As a college catcher, it seemed possible that Okey would reach the big leagues before Stephenson since he’d need less development. Then 2017 happened. After posting a 124 wRC+ at Dayton in 2016, Okey was promoted to Daytona last season and had a rough time, hitting an ugly .185/.266/.250. A broken hamate bone likely didn’t help matters, so it’s far from time to give up on Okey. Given his struggles, though, he’ll likely start 2018 in Daytona with Stephenson. Both can also play first base, which should keep them both in the lineup most days.
Between Stephenson and Okey in High-A and Turner in Triple-A, there are bigger question marks for the Reds. Former Cardinal Tony Cruz was signed to a minor-league deal in the offseason and could split time with Turner in Triple-A. He’s unlikely to see time in Cincinnati, however, since he isn’t on the 40-man roster. It’s also possible that he’s released after spring training if the Reds decide to go with Garrett Boulware or Joe Hudson as the other catcher in Louisville. Hudson is highly regarded for his defense, but he doesn’t bring much with the bat as a career .216/.308/.323 hitter. Garrett Boulware profiles similarly, though he has hit for a higher average (.246) in his career.
The Reds have a solid group of catchers in their organization, and Barnhart looks to be the starter in Cincinnati through at least 2021. Until Stephenson or Okey arrive, though — which likely won’t be until 2020 in the best-case scenario — there are questions marks behind him. Mesoraco is unlikely to return in 2019 unless he has a bounce-back season and the front office manages to sign him to a team-friendly deal. Turner could be the backup in 2019, but there won’t be many intriguing options behind him unless the club signs more veteran catchers to fill out the roster in Triple-A. The team could also fill the gap by signing a cheap free agent to back up Barnhart for a year or two.
Photo Credits: Sam Greene, Cincinnati Enquirer