The Dodgers finally have great catching depth

The acquisitions of catchers Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes last winter were some of the most important moves that the Dodgers front office has made so far during its tenure. Bolstering the catching depth was a necessity overlooked for far too long. The Dodgers lost a slew of catchers throughout the organization last offseason and went years without a top caliber catcher. Ramon Hernandez and Jason Phillips, anyone? They finally acquired some solid catching corps in Grandal and Barnes, and these upgrades have already paid dividends in increased offensive productivity as well as defensive improvement and organizational depth.

The offensive numbers for the 2014 Dodger catchers were ugly. The four Dodger catchers who played in 2014 combined to hit just seven home runs between three of them (Miguel Olivo only played eight games behind the dish before deciding to dine on Alex Guerrero‘s ear). Olivo was the only Dodger catcher to hit above the Mendoza Line at a fiery .217 clip. A.J. Ellis hit .191/.323/.254 in 93 games, and Drew Butera hit a paltry .188/.267/.288 in 61 games. Tim Federowicz, now with the Cubs, played in 23 games and hit .113/.158/.197.

The Dodgers were dead last in the league in batting average amongst catchers (.181). More importantly, they also ranked last in slugging (.261), OBP (.283), and OPS (.544). They were second-to-last in home runs, and they only mustered 27 extra base hits collectively. The only category they led was in walks (73) thanks to Ellis’ 52 signature free passes sprinkled throughout the season.

The 2015 season saw vast improvement from the Dodger backstops both offensively and defensively after Grandal was acquired from San Diego in the, at the time, controversial Matt Kemp trade. Although Grandal was hampered in the second half by a shoulder injury that required surgery in the offseason, the Dodger catchers were much improved across the board. No longer last in the National League in offense, the addition of Grandal did much to ameliorate the shortcomings of the Dodger catchers in recent years. Even after Grandal struggled in the second half of 2015, the Dodger catchers led the league in OBP (.360) and OPS (.771), and they finished third in slugging (.411).

These offensive gains are even more inspiriting given the fact that Grandal had an abysmal second half at the plate and collected just four extra base hits in his final 142 at-bats. A healthy Grandal will get the majority of starts, something manager Dave Roberts has already confirmed. Grandal is an integral component of the Dodgers offense both for 2016 and within the long-term plan. After netting the Dodgers two wins above replacement in 2016, I would expect a healthy Grandal to contribute similarly or better in 2016.

We have to remember that Grandal’s injuries over the course of his career have to do with the inevitable consequences that typify the position of catcher more than anything else. Grandal suffered a right forearm bruise during Wednesday’s game versus the Angels, and he is not expected back in the lineup for a few days.

Grandal responded to Doug Padilla of ESPN as to the notion that he is injury prone:

“A lot of times I’ve been put as this guy who gets hurt all the time, where my injuries have been caused by something else and it hasn’t been my body breaking down,” he said. “It hasn’t been that I haven’t been healthy, it’s just one of those things.”

Grandal’s knee injury limited his playing time in San Diego back in 2013 which was thanks to a messy Anthony Rendon slide at home plate, and his shoulder was banged up last season when he was hit by a pitch in Philadelphia. Grandal also missed playing time last season due to a concussion.

Good catching is really difficult to find. The new front office finally added the best catcher since Russell Martin to the team with Grandal, and the deal which brought Barnes over from Miami turned out to be even more important after Ellis’ knee injury last season.

Barnes is the best third-string catcher the Dodgers have had since I can remember. I don’t think it would be unrealistic for the Dodgers to consider carrying a third catcher this season, considering Barnes’ infield versatility, an idea already touched on by Dustin earlier this year. With Howie Kendrick‘s groin injury and Alex Guerrero‘s knee and back soreness (and weak defense), the door has opened up for Barnes a little more.

The inclusion of Barnes to the Opening Day roster could also be beneficial not only to provide defensive flexibility around the infield but also to keep Ellis and Grandal fresh and rested over the season which is unavoidably more grueling for a catcher than any other position. Barnes has made an impression in Cactus League play this Spring, and his no-doubt home run off Jered Weaver while going 3-for-4 during Wednesday’s 13-13 tie against the Angels (he hit another home run against the Angels on Friday and one against the Cubs on Saturday), gave us a glimpse of the 26-year old Riverside native’s talents. Roberts described Barnes as “a dynamic player.”

Beyond Barnes, the Dodgers have even more promising catching depth in their pipeline as well. Kyle Farmer and Julian Leon were ranked on Dustin’s 2016 Dodgers Top Prospects at No. 29 and 33, respectively. Shawn Zarraga, slated for Oklahoma City this season, has also been getting a look this spring and has five hits in nine at bats for the Dodgers in Cactus League play.

If we take a look at the catching depth around the National League West, Barnes stacks up against any of the other third-string catchers. Although the Giants have four-win above replacement juggernaut Buster Posey at their disposal, the Dodgers have shot up the catching depth chart and are now ranked No. 2 by FanGraphs. This is fantastic improvement considering the fact Rod Barajas was cradling Dee Gordon in the dugout just a few years ago.

A future Dodgers catching duo comprised of Grandal and Barnes would certainly provide the pitching staff with some excellent pitch framing as well as offensive productivity and versatility out of the lineup. While Ellis stepped up admirably last season when Grandal’s shoulder injury prevented him from being able to swing the bat without noticeable restraint, Ellis’ time behind the plate will likely be decreased behind a healthy Grandal.

Considering the lack of depth in the Dodger infield and the recent injuries to Guerrero, Kendrick and Corey Seager, along with Justin Turner‘s rehabilitation from knee surgery, we shouldn’t punch the ticket to Oklahoma City for Barnes just yet.

Even if Roberts does not plan to use Barnes around the infield or behind the plate at the Major League level this season, the Dodgers finally have some inspiring catching depth.

About Stacie Wheeler

Stacie Wheeler, born and raised in So Cal, has been writing about the Dodgers since 2010. She wrote daily as the co-editor of Lasorda's Lair for five long years, and she has also written for Dodgers Nation, Dodger Blue 1958 and The Hardball Times. She currently contributes to True Blue LA. Stacie graduated from the University Of Southern California with a bachelor's degree in Cinema-Television. You can also watch her videos on her YouTube channel, DishingUpTheDodgers.