With the top two free agent backstops off the market, perhaps the Cincinnati Reds will be just fine with their current catching tandem.
While there were a few outliers, most fans throughout Reds Country were hoping their team’s pursuit of free agent catcher Yasmani Grandal ended with the former farmhand returning to the Queen City. That didn’t happen. But maybe the Cincinnati Reds current catching tandem of Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali is more than adequate heading into 2020.
After last year’s inquiry into Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, followed by the Reds interest in this year’s prize free agent Grandal, it appears as though the Cincinnati front office is looking for more from the catching position. That’s understandable given the offensive production the team has seen the past two seasons from the position.
After slashing .270/.347/.403 and earning a Gold Glove in 2017, the past two seasons have not been as kind to starting catcher Tucker Barnhart. Though he’s seen an uptick in home runs the last two years, Barnhart’s overall offensive production has fallen a bit flat. The 28-year-old hit a combined .241 from 2018-2019 and he’s struck out 179 times.
Barnhart’s struggles to begin the 2019 season got so bad that Reds skipper David Bell shied away from using Curt Casali exclusively as Barnhart’s backup and split the time more evenly between the two backstops. For his part, Casali had a solid, yet unspectacular 2019 season. The 31-year-old hit .251 with a .741 OPS in 84 games – the most he’d played since 2016.
After Barnhart was shelved halfway through the season with an oblique injury, he came back with a vengeance. After missing a little more than a month, Barnhart returned to hit .315/.411/.522 from July 26th through the end of August. Tucker had 7 doubles, 4 home runs and 18 RBIs. That version of Tucker Barnhart can play on my team every day.
Just yesterday, Travis d’Arnaud, one of the top free agent catchers available on the market, signed a two-year/$16M deal with the Atlanta Braves. After a seven-year career with the New York Mets that saw d’Arnaud hit just .242 with a .719 OPS, his play with the Tampa Bay Rays over the second half of last season earned him a new deal worth $8M per season.
Now, we can sit back all day long and debate whether or not Yasmani Grandal is worth the four-year/$73M deal he signed with the Chicago White Sox, but d’Arnaud’s contract seems ludicrous for the type of production he’s historically put up. If $8M per year is the going rate for an average catcher on the open market, I think I’ll stick with the current tandem in the Reds dugout.
Tucker Barnhart is owed just $7.25M over the next two seasons and has a team option for 2022 worth $7.5M with a $500,000 buyout. To put that in perspective, the Atlanta Braves will be paying d’Arnaud, who’ll split time with Tyler Flowers, more in 2020 than the Reds will pay Barnhart in the next two seasons combined.
Flowers just received a one-year/$4M contract after the Braves paid a $2M buyout before the start of free agency. Atlanta has $12M tied up in two catchers that combined to hit .241 with 27 home runs and 103 RBIs in 2019. With Casali’s estimated arbitration costs from MLB Trade Rumors, the Reds will dish out $5.2M next season for a catching tandem that averaged .239 with 19 home runs and 72 RBIs.
Casali and Barnhart combined for 1.8 wins above replacement (WAR), while Flowers and d’Arnaud account for just 0.9 WAR. If you ask me, the Reds are the clear winners in that scenario. To be fair, Flowers gets very high marks in terms of pitch framing, while the other three players are just about average. That said, Barnhart showed a huge improvement in that category last year.
If the Cincinnati Reds chose to stand pat with their current catching tandem of Tucker Barnhart and Curt Casali, while waiting for Tyler Stephenson to develop at Triple-A Louisville, I think most fans would be okay with that decision. That said, the Reds will have to make upgrades at other positions if they wish to compete in 2020.
Cincinnati has been rumored to be after such free agents as Zack Wheeler, Marcell Ozuna, Nicholas Castellanos and Didi Gregorius. If the Reds can land one or two of those players, the team should take a huge step forward in their pursuit of the playoffs next season.