The World Champion Dodgers have the luxury of two catchers who both could be everyday backstops on most teams. With a plethora of catchers at their disposal, including new international signing Jesus Galiz, the Dodgers have one of the best collections of catchers in the game.
Will Smith and Austin Barnes are locked in as the projected Opening Day catching duo, but there’s plenty of intriguing possibilities at the catcher position throughout the system. They’ll have to make a decision on Keibert Ruiz, who will start the year in Triple-A. Diego Cartaya has been rising in stock among prospect evaluators, while Ruiz’s status is down.
What are the Dodgers going to do with all these catchers? Let’s take a look.
Starting Catcher: Will Smith
Smith will get the bulk of the playing time behind the plate this season. The 25-year old came out of that special 2016 draft class, 32nd pick overall. He’ll always be a part of the 2020 champion team. It’s hard to believe 2021 will be his first full season at the Major League level.
Will’s impressed in a breakout 2020 season, leading the Dodgers and NL catchers with a 163 wRC+. In the Fresh Prince’s two brief stints with the Dodgers, he slashed .268/.363/.574/.937 with 23 home runs, 38 walks and 74 strikeouts in 333 plate appearances. Over a 162-game season, that’s a rate of 40+ homers and 100+ RBI, ranking him at the top of the “Catchers Who Rake” club.
Smith can hit for power, but he’s also become a very disciplined batter with a 1.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his MLB career. Albeit a small sample size, Smith lowered his strikeout rate by 10 percentage points and increased his walk rate 5 points from 2019-2020. Smith ranked in the 80th percentile in exit velocity with an average of 90.8 MPH. He also finished in the 88th percentile in hard-hit rate and finished in the 95th percentile in strikeout rate. Smith is a good fastball hitter, hitting six homers vs. heaters (.733 SLG vs. fastballs).
Smith gives the Dodgers a productive bat out of the catcher position, but Barnes adds value in his defense, framing and game calling, areas where Will still has work to do.
Backup Catcher: Austin Barnes
Smith’s bat is hard to leave out of the lineup, but Barnes adds value in other ways. His elite pitch framing (96th percentile) is what pitchers want in a catcher. Barnes has become Clayton Kershaw’s preferred battery mate. The Dodgers signed Barnes this offseason to a 2-year, $4.3 million contract, blocking a spot for Ruiz on the big club for now with no DH in the NL this season.
Barnes has spent most of his career with the Dodgers as the back-up catcher, starting out behind Kershaw’s former favorite battery mate A.J. Ellis. His bat has gone cold at the plate at times, much like Ellis, but he did look better in the shortened season. In 86 at-bats, he hit 40 points above his prior season’s batting average. And let’s not forget that Barnes hit well in the World Series (320/.393/.440), with a big hit in Game 6.
Minor League Depth
Here’s where things get fun. The Dodgers’ catching prospect depth is better than it has been for years. The Dodgers have two Top 10 catching prospects in their farm system in Keibert Ruiz and Diego Cartaya.
We got a glimpse of Ruiz in a mini major-league moment last year. Everyone took notice when Ruiz smashed a solo home run in his first MLB at-bat.
Ruiz became the youngest catcher to start a game for the Dodgers since Dioner Navarro (21) in 2005. In five minor-league seasons with the Dodgers, he’s hit just shy of .300 in 1,439 at-bats. He’s only collected 29 homers in that time. The Dodgers are still waiting for his power bat to come around. In 2019, the switch-hitting catcher split his time between Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A OKC, batting a combined .261 with six homers and 34 RBIs, posting a .679 OPS over 314 at-bats.
If one top catching prospect isn’t enough, the Dodgers have two solid young backstops in their organization with Diego Cartaya right behind Ruiz in the pipeline. In fact, Keith Law of The Athletic ranked Cartaya (75) ahead of Ruiz (80) on his Top 100 MLB Prospects List for 2021. FanGraphs also ranked Ruiz at No. 80, while MLB Pipeline is more bullish on Ruiz, placing him at No. 57. Meanwhile, Dustin put up the newest installment of his Top 50 Dodgers Prospects last week. You’ll have to stay tuned for the Top 10, but let’s just say Cartaya and Ruiz are awfully close on his list (spoiler alert).
Cartaya, 19, signed in 2019 out of Venezuela for $2.5 million, is one of the top defensive catchers out of the Dodgers’ horde. If Cartaya breaks out, the Dodgers could be more inclined to trade Ruiz should his bat not show up.
Catchers are like potato chips to the Dodgers. The organization also added Jesus Galiz, another catcher out of Venezuela. Galiz was the top catching prospect during this international signing period. Despite his rumored ties to the Yankees, the Dodgers signed Galiz for a little over $800,000. He’s a converted infielder who worked with Salvador Perez this offseason.
Stevie Berman, 28, hasn’t played above the Double-A level. The 2016 31st-round draft pick split time with Single-A Rancho and Double-A Tulsa, hitting about .300 in 36 combined games.
Hunter Feduccia is No. 43 on Dustin’s Top 50. The 23-year old left-handed hitting catcher’s slated to start the season with Double-A Tulsa.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Tim Federowicz, good ol’ FedEx. He makes his return to the Dodgers, giving me 2014 vibes. He’s a career .192 hitter, so I’m not expecting much. Anyhow, the Dodgers have a lot of pitchers in camp and need catchers for them. He’s also filling in for Ruiz who is trying to get to camp from Venezuela.
Dodgers Catching Projects Well In 2021
The champs are stacked at every position. Catcher is no exception. With one of the best catching tandems in the game in Smith and Barnes, FanGraphs expects the Dodgers’ catchers to produce 3.7 WAR at the position.
I’m not good at ranking players, but it’s fun to see what the organizational catching depth looks like in list form. I’ve included Dustin’s rankings thus far on his Top 50 prospects lists for 2021.
|Cartaya (Top 10)||19.5|
|Ruiz (Top 10)||22.6|
|Feduccia (43, NRI)||23.8|
Player development is obviously an organizational strength, and Travis Barbary has been a big part of what they do with catchers. He was recently promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City manager from organizational catching coordinator. Barbary opened his home to Ruiz, becoming his mentor. Barbary also took in Cartaya, facilitating English lessons and giving him teenager time to play video games with his own kids. He’ll manage Ruiz in OKC this season. The long-tenured Barbary had this to say about the Dodgers’ catching depth in 2019.
“From a catching standpoint, it’s a special time for this organization,” said Barbary. “To have this amount, and there are others with a chance to do well. Look at the depth. Our scouts did a great job and it’s going to be fun to watch them progress.”
It has been fun to watch the Dodgers’ catchers progress over the years, and in 2021 it remains a special time for catching depth in the system.