Pre Spring Evaluations: Catchers

More and more Dodgers are making their way to Camelback Ranch in Arizona, with pre-season action set to get underway in the next week. The first group of players to arrive were the pitchers, who we have already addressed in the first two parts of this series and the catchers, the squad we turn our attention to in this edition.

The catcher position has been the position of most uncertainty for the Dodgers, dating back to 2017, when Austin Barnes first stole the starting job from Yasmani Grandal. After claiming the starting job down the stretch and all of the 2017 postseason, there was discussion in circles of fans and pundits about what the Dodgers should do. Some even went as far as advocating for Los Angeles to trade Yasmani Grandal and allow Barnes to further prove himself as the starter. Luckily, the Dodgers decided to hang onto Grandal, and he reclaimed his starting role largely due to Barnes lack of offensive production. Barnes reclaimed the starting role again this October when Grandal inexplicably lost the ability to play.

That leads us to this past offseason, when Los Angeles tendered Grandal a qualifying offer, which he rejected, en route to signing with the Milwaukee Brewers. That left the Dodgers with Austin Barnes and Rocky Gale as the only catchers on the roster with MLB experience. The Dodgers do have two top catching prospects (one of them being Top 50 in all of baseball) so we know this will all be solved in a year or two internally, but neither are ready to take the reins just yet.

Rumors came and rumors went, with each passing rumor went another catcher to a roster that was not the Dodgers. Finally, the Dodgers made a deal, this January, bringing back Russell Martin. Despite his history with the team, this was not the catcher fans were hoping the Dodgers would acquire. No, everybody was jumping on the J.T. Realmuto bandwagon, pleading for the Dodgers to bring the former Miami backstop to tinseltown. The Marlins notoriously asked for a package that vastly overrated Realmuto’s actual value because they are well aware of MLB’s current catching shortage. The Dodgers were unwilling to meet their demands, so the Marlins wound up shipping off their catcher to the City of Brotherly Love (or so they say).

Realmuto is a Philly, which means we can all finally put to bed the rumor that he will be a Dodger. Which means that we can move on and focus on reality and evaluate the catching situation for the Dodgers.

MLB Catchers

  • Austin Barnes
  • Russell Martin

Yes, I know, this is not the most exciting tandem and it is certainly disappointing to many fans that had their sights set on J.T. Realmuto or a reunion with Yasmani Grandal. Understandably so, in 2018 Barnes barely cleared the Mendoza line while Martin ended the season with a .194 batting average. Nobody has been a bigger advocate against outdated fan statistics like batting average, but even the most obscure sabermetrician could tell you that 2018 was a flat out terrible season for these two, in terms of offense.

However, the catching position is the most intriguing position (excluding pitching) for the fact that even in today’s offensive driven league, it is the only spot on the field where front offices value (or at least should) defense over offense. It is feasible that an infielder or outfielder never has the ball hit to them in a baseball game, but the catcher is involved in every single pitch. Teams place such a premium on defense behind the plate because of this. Often times sitting the better offensive catcher for the better defensive catcher, precisely what the Dodgers did in October. Grandal is a better hitter than Barnes and it’s not even close, but his lackluster defense wound to his benching and eventual departure.

This tandem is far more productive behind the plate than they are in the batters box. Austin Barnes is one of the most athletic catchers I have ever seen, with the build and speed of a middle infielder. His statistics back up the hypothesis and eye test. In less than 450 innings last season, Austin Barnes logged 10 DRS (defensive runs saved). For reference, Yasmani Grandal was considered to have an excellent 2018 on defense behind the plate. Grandal logged in 9 DRS through over a thousand innings behind the plate. Barnes is more than just a competent fielder, he is exceptional.

Dating back to Russell Martin’s initial stint with the Dodgers, defense was his trademark, earning him a pair of All-Star appearances and a Gold Glove in 2007. He later went on to be an All-Star two more times with the Yankees and Pirates. In his prime, Martin regularly racked up DRS numbers in the teens, reaching his pinnacle in 2013, when he recorded a DRS of 21. Age has done what it always does and it did to Martin what it has done to many before and after him, regressing ability. Over the last few years, Martin has become pretty average on the defensive side of the ball, and he has not logged a double digit DRS since 2014. With that being said, he has a defensive pedigree and should serve as a veteran leader with a much-reduced role in 2019.

Minor Leagues but may see action at some point in 2019

  • Josh Thole
  • Rocky Gale
  • Keibert Ruiz
  • Will Smith

The first pair, Thole and Gale are veterans over the age of 30. Gale is on the 40 man roster, while Thole is not on the 40 man roster but he has an invitation to Spring Training. Thole was once a starter for the Mets and Blue Jays, but his mediocrity at the plate has kept him off MLB rosters since 2016. Gale on the other hand has TWO career MLB hits. TWO. Neither of these two will be factors for the Dodgers in 2019.

The second duo is much more intriguing, the one consisting of Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith, the two prized catching prospects in the Dodgers farm system. Ruiz is only 20 and all signs point to him seeing the MLB roster by 2020 at the latest, which is amazing for somebody who can’t even buy a beer. Ruiz was signed by the Dodgers as an international prospect out of Venezuela on his 16th birthday, and since then he has shot his was up the ranks of not only the Dodgers, but MLB’s prospect rankings, placing at 39 for all MLB prospects. Will Smith may not have the incredible story of signing with an MLB organization as a teenager, but he was a first round draft pick by the Dodgers in 2016. He is viewed as one of MLB’s most athletic catching prospects, which leads to his superb 60 marks for both fielding and throwing, as well as a 55 in the speed department (fast for a catcher). He has been slightly inconsistent in the minors with the bat in his hand, but his raw power is intriguing and he has certainly improved from when he was drafted. At only 23, watching Smith and the 20 year old Ruiz battle it out to fight for supremacy and eventually take the reins as starting catcher for the Dodgers should certainly be exciting.