Austin Barnes’ future is bright, but it might not be behind the plate

Photo: Stacie Wheeler

The Dodgers have baseball’s deepest catching corps. We’ve written about this before, and it will be on full display over the next 2-3 years. Not all the guys who are currently in the organization will still be here in a year or two, which means there could be a bit of a crunch behind the dish.

The two incumbents are Austin Barnes and Yasmani Grandal. As well they should be. Barnes started 13 of 15 games in the postseason, which leads some to believe he has the inside track for the starting job in 2018. More likely, it sounds like Barnes and Grandal will split time. It’s probably for the best, but it’d also be nice to see one of them separate from each other. Barnes’ smallish frame has some folks questioning if he can handle the rigors of an everyday catching gig, while Grandal’s issues have been injury and inconsistent performance.

Half wRC+
First Half 2015 159
Second Half 2015 49
First Half 2016 106
Second Half 2016 137
First Half 2017 108
Second Half 2017 93

Grandal is in the last year of his contract and will, almost assuredly, leave via free agency after the season. But this post isn’t about Barnes vs. Grandal, it’s more about Barnes’ future behind the plate — or lack thereof.

Barnes had a breakout 2017 season. He had 142 wRC+, and while he might not be that good over the course of a full season, the scouting reports have long since said he should be a starting catcher in this league. Hell, he was about ready to start when the Dodgers acquired him in the Dee Gordon trade in December 2014. Here we are more than three years later and might finally get that chance. Maybe. Kinda.

Barnes is dealing with a bit of a sore elbow that started bothering him late last season. Throwing has always been the weakest component of his game behind the plate, but he was still an average thrower. But if Barnes’ elbow continues to be an issue, then perhaps his future isn’t behind the plate. He’s plenty adept at second base and with an offseason’s worth of work, perhaps he’s the Dodgers’ future starter at the position.

Even if Grandal leaves, the Dodgers can afford to make this move. There’s no clear-cut replacement for Logan Forsythe after this season (he’s also a free agent), and Chase Utley is around for his clubhouse presence more than his ability on the field. Jake Peter might be A Guy, but we’ll see how he performs this season. Plus, his utility might be more attractive than locking him solely into second base. Unless the Dodgers are planning on finding a true center fielder before next season — if that guy isn’t actually Chris Taylor — then he’d be eliminated from taking over second base after 2018. That’s where Barnes would step in.

Barnes has just 104 2/3 defensive innings at second base in the majors. In that time he has graded out at about average in an extremely small sample size. In the minors, though, Barnes has 1,457 defensive innings at second. Given there are concerns about his long-term durability and the fact that his bat is quite valuable, a move to second base makes a lot of sense.

——

Barnes — rate-wise — is the 2nd-best framer in baseball. Overall, he was eighth, but that was in just 2,931 framing chances. When extrapolated to give him the same number of framing chances as Grandal had in 2017 (6,735), he grades out better than Austin Hedges, Martin Maldonado, Grandal and Caleb Joseph — 4 of the Top 5 framers in the game. Tyler Flowers has him beat, given the same criteria. Moving him out from behind the plate would seem like a questionable decision, but the argument could be made that it’s the best long-term move for him and the Dodgers because of their incredible catching depth.

Drafted as an infielder who was immediately converted to catcher, Kyle Farmer caught just seven innings in the majors in 2017. It was odd, but with Barnes and Grandal, there weren’t many opportunities for him to catch (I guess). He took it upon himself in the offseason to make himself a much more viable catching option for 2018 and beyond. From Eric Stephen at True Blue LA:

“Kyle Farmer made his way to the big leagues last season thanks to his versatility and the strength of his bat. But it is his offseason work behind the plate that could help him make a bigger impact in 2018. Specifically, it was all in the hips. ‘His hips were really tight and he couldn’t squat. As he tried to get into that squat position it was more of a stab at the baseball but now he can work underneath the baseball,’ manager Dave Roberts said. ‘His hips are more naturally lower now. His hands really play, and he really is a good, accurate thrower but it was the receiving that was in question for us.’ Farmer was an infielder at the University of Georgia but converted to catcher when the Dodgers drafted him in the eighth round in 2013. Stretching his hips didn’t come naturally. ‘It was my fault. I never really stretched, but who does growing up? We didn’t really know about that stuff,’ Farmer said. ‘Then over time it just kept getting tighter and tighter, plus I had never caught before so I never learned how to stretch. I would stretch a little bit in the minors the past three years, but I didn’t really focus on it as much because I didn’t think it was that important. But watching film of Yaz and Barnes in the offseason I saw the position they were getting in, and I couldn’t get in that position. I had to figure out how to get in that position.'”

He won’t be the primary backup in 2018 (barring injury), but he could be that in 2019. The future starter behind the plate, if it isn’t Barnes, will come from the minors.

Keibert Ruiz is the Dodgers’ top catching prospect, according to most prospectors (FanGraphs being the exception). He’s going to place rather highly on my Top 100 list, and he’s my bet to be the Dodgers’ No. 1 catcher as early as 2020. He’s a special player who takes pride in working with his pitching staffs and is trying to better himself as a player. Oh, and he can hit a bit (with developing power). He’s the total package.

But if Ruiz isn’t as good as I think he’s going to be, then perhaps Will Smith is the guy. Smith was the No. 32 overall pick in 2016 out of Louisville. His 2017 — despite missing a couple months with a broken wrist — catapulted him up some rankings. He began to show power to go along with good on-base ability. But where he thrives is defensively. He’s plus or better in every facet of being a catcher. He’s basically what Barnes strives to be.

Odds are, the Dodgers might have another strong platoon behind the plate with Ruiz and Smith. They could easily supplant Barnes and Farmer, with Barnes moving to second base and Farmer perhaps becoming trade bait.

Oh, the Dodgers also spent their third round pick in the 2017 draft on Connor Wong, who is basically a Smith clone. He’s a few years away from being a legitimate option, but if he follows the catching prospects before him, he’ll be knocking on the door before we know it.

——

The Dodgers have a plethora of future catching options, even if you take out Barnes and Grandal. To maximize the available talent, moving Barnes to second base full-time in either 2019 or 2020 might be in the team’s best interest. It’ll extend his career, get his bat in the lineup on an everyday basis and they won’t lose anything (and may perhaps gain) defensively at catcher.

Barnes is plenty good enough to be an everyday catcher, even if there concerns about his durability. But having the option to plug him in at second base could end up being invaluable. And if Smith takes off in the minors this season, perhaps the move to second base could come in 2019 (with Farmer/Smith sharing time at catcher). We’re a ways off from that, but don’t be surprised if that’s the endgame here.

About Dustin Nosler

Dustin Nosler
Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosts a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He is a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif., and has yet to be shot.