Reds: Tucker Barnhart’s bat could force the front office into a corner

Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart (16) celebrates.
Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart (16) celebrates. /

The 2021 season was supposed to be a bridge-year from starting catcher Tucker Barnhart to top-rated rookie Tyler Stephenson. If Barnhart keeps producing, the Cincinnati Reds front office may have more questions than answers moving forward.

The Reds made a shrewd  maneuver this offseason when they non-tendered veteran catcher Curt Casali. With Stephenson showing last season that he was ready to make his presence felt in the big leagues, Nick Krall and the Cincinnati front office felt as though it was time to allow Casali to sign elsewhere and head into 2021 with the catching tandem of Barnhart and Stephenson.

Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart has excelled in the early going.

Tucker Barnhart was the hero last night. With the game knotted at 5 runs apiece in the top of the 10th inning, the left-handed hitting catcher stepped to the plate and laced a line drive into the outfield, scoring Eugenio Suarez from third base. The Cincinnati Reds would go on to defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks 6-5.

On the young season, Barnhart is 8-for-18 (.444) with a home run, three doubles, and seven RBIs. Barnhart has started in five of the Reds first seven games, with Stephenson getting the nod behind the plate in the other two games.

David Bell is known to play the percentages, and oftentimes last season when a left-hander was on the hill for the opposing team, the Reds’ skipper would send Casali out in favor of Barnhart. However, this season, Barnhart is showing that he can hit lefties as well.

His go-ahead hit in the top of the 10th came off left-handed pitcher Alex Young. Barnhart is now 2-for-3 this season versus southpaws with a double and a pair of RBIs. Last season, Tucker Barnhart was 1-for-9 versus left-handed pitching.

The Reds have a team-option for Tucker Barnhart following the 2021 season.

The Cincinnati Reds will have a big decision to make this offseason in terms of how they proceed with Tucker Barnhart. The two-time Gold Glove catcher is in the final guaranteed year of a four-year/$16M contract. Barnhart is taking home $3.75M this season according to Spotrac.

However, the club could decide to exercise its $7.5M team-option this coming winter. That would keep Barnhart in the Queen City through the 2022 season. After the salary purge we saw from the Reds’ front office this past offseason, along with the trade rumors surrounding the likes of Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo, it’s tough to see Cincinnati keeping Barnhart for that number.

But, if Barnhart continues to assault the baseball as he has to begin the 2021 season, a defensive-minded catcher who can hit like that would be a bargain at $7.5M. Furthermore, Tyler Stephenson is only making the league-minimum.

How does Tucker Barnhart’s salary compare to other catchers?

In terms of average annual value (AAV), JT Realmuto leads the way. The Phillies’ catcher inked a new five-year/$115M deal this past winter. Salvador Perez just signed a new four-year deal with an AAV of $20.5M. Buster Posey, who signed an eight-year deal with the San Francisco Giants years ago, comes in third with an AAV of $19.86M.

Now, those are elite-level catchers who can both defend and hit for power and average. We recently saw Yadier Molina, who’s well past his prime, take home a one-year/$9M contract this past offseason. Travis d’Arnaud signed a two-year deal prior to the 2020 season with an AAV of $8M.

Barnhart’s 7.2 WAR over his seven-year career dwarfs d’Arnaud’s 4.2 WAR. The Braves’ backstop took home the Silver Slugger Award last season, but d’Arnaud only produces a career-OPS+ of 100. Barnhart, known more for his glove, has a career-OPS+ of 86.

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Obviously we’re only seven games into the 2021 season, and a slump from Tucker Barnhart or an offensive explosion from Tyler Stephenson could quell any talk of the Cincinnati Reds picking up the Gold Glover’s team-option following the season. But, it’s hard to put a price tag on the intangibles that Barnhart brings to the team.