(Photo Credit: twicopy.org)
On Tuesday, while publishing the first edition containing our projections for the Dodgers‘ 25-man roster heading into 2017, there were a few areas of the squad that provoked some curious contemplation, with the depth chart at catcher being among the most interesting. After the departures of veterans A.J. Ellis and Carlos Ruiz, 28-year-old Yasmani Grandal will step up to be the new leader of the catching crew, headlining an area of the team that seemingly got loads of years younger with the blink of an eye.
If he’s able to stay healthy the entire season, and that’s indeed a big “if,” Grandal will be poised to have an exceptional 2017 campaign. Defensively, he’s among the best pitch framers in the business while his caught-stealing percentage has been above the league average over the past two seasons. His runs saved averages continue to trend upward, and so long as he persists in improving a few teaks in terms of mental focus, could be among the best defensive catchers in baseball.
Although he once again posted a sub-.240 batting average in 2016, he did hit a career-high 27 homers and 72 RBI, creating a much needed, genuine deep threat in the Dodgers’ daily lineup. In an interview during the 2016 NLCS, Grandal perfectly narrated his top priorities.
“There’s a couple things I do,” he explained. “I slug, I walk, and I catch. In the playoffs, catching is No. 1, getting on base is No. 2, and slugging is No. 3. They want me to make sure I run the pitching staff like it’s supposed to be ran — that’s basically it. I’m gonna run my pitching staff, I’m gonna call a good game and we’re gonna pitch good games. I’m gonna walk, and I’m gonna hit homers.”
After a total of six seasons in minor league ball, Austin Barnes appears to be ready to embrace the backup role in what could potentially be his first full year in the bigs. Although his .180 average over 74 plate appearances in the majors is still a relatively small sample size, Barnes’ .299/.388/.439 career slash line in the minors certainly suggests signs of potential. For Triple-A Oklahoma City last year, the soon to be 27-year-old hit .295/.380/.443 in 85 games over 385 plate appearances, stealing a surprising 18 bases while primarily batting out of the two-hole.
Defensively, all of his mechanics are superb, as his release is quick enough to keep runners honest and his glove work is solid. He has experience in the infield and has more than held his own when used at second and third base. On paper, everything points to Barnes as being a fine backup and more.
Yet perhaps the most intriguing piece to the Dodgers’ catching puzzle is 26-year-old Kyle Farmer. He was one of several recent additions to the club’s 40-man roster, and in the event of an injury, could be added to the 25-man at the drop of the dime. A converted infielder, the 26-year-old Atlanta native slashed .258/.324/.410 with seven home runs over 78 games last season. He has a rifle for an arm, which is made evident by his career 33% caught-stealing percentage over four minor league seasons. He’ll begin the season as the No. 1 guy at Oklahoma City and make his best efforts to prepare himself for the bigs whenever he’s called upon.
Beneath Farmer on the depth chart are two quality backstops in Jack Murphy and Paul Hoenecke; however, a more fascinating name in the catching department is 21-year-old Will Smith, who could conceivably be good enough to leapfrog into the top spot on the farm by the end of 2017.
Smith was the 32nd overall choice by the Dodgers in last year’s draft, and according to MLB Pipeline, is a significantly better athlete than most catchers, with some scouts giving him plus grades for his speed. He has solid arm strength and such a quick transfer that he consistently delivers throws to second base in 1.9 seconds or less. He moves very well behind the plate and is a good receiver who capably handled several pro-caliber pitchers on Louisville’s staff. At the dish, Smith uses a compact right-handed stroke that enables him to make contact with ease. He’s more of an on-base machine than a power threat, though he has the ability to poke an occasional ball out of the park.
So long as the entire catching crew can stay relatively healthy, the short-term plan laid out by the front office crew alongside scouting director Gabe Kapler appears to be almost perfect. Besides keeping a keen eye on Grandal’s batting average and power numbers, it will also be interesting to see if manager Dave Roberts decides to use Barnes in other utility-type roles. In addition, fans of the Dodgers everywhere will be very excited to see how quickly Smith claws his way through the middle levels of the farm.