According to some of the media outlets reporting out of Camelback Ranch, the Opening Day catching duties for the Dodgers are up for grabs, as it “remains to be seen how the playing time will break down.”
It was almost nostalgic in a sense when 35-year-old Russell Martin caught staff ace Clayton Kershaw in one of the team’s very first bullpen sessions on Tuesday. Fans immediately imagined what it might be like with Martin as the starting catcher, despite an extremely rough year offensively last season with the Blue Jays.
Regardless of his numbers, though, boss Andrew Friedman already sees many positives by having the 13-year veteran on the squad.
“Bringing Martin back, just him getting up to speed with our guys, the early returns have been unbelievable,” Friedman told Theresa Smith of the Associated Press. “Not surprising just how much he’s already invested into our guys, the questions he’s asking. All he wants to do is win and you can see it in everything he does.”
Nevertheless, because he’s considered to have the higher ceiling, many feel that the starting job belongs to Austin Barnes, especially if he can rediscover the swing that produced a .289/.408/.486 slash line during his 2017 campaign.
Andy put together a report on Monday highlighting some of the steps that Barnes has taken to address his swing mechanics over the winter. She also included some fine praise from one of Barnes’ battery mates, southpaw starter Rich Hill.
Even Martin had his own compliments to offer the 29-year-old Barnes during the early moments of spring camp.
“As far as Barnes, he looks like he’s a tremendous athlete, a good catcher, a good teammate,” Martin said. “Good teammates have one goal in common, they want the team to win and I think we share that so I am not going to be complaining at all about playing time. As long as we win games, and we put ourselves in position to hopefully win a championship, that’s all we can do.”
Sounds like typical wisdom coming from a veteran backstop, and it sounds like an excellent attitude to have on a club whose goal is nothing short of capturing a World Series Championship.
The battle for playing time between Barnes and Martin will begin when Cactus League play begins on Saturday, February 23. It could boil down to whichever player has the best spring, as there are no clear advantages for either player in terms of career batting splits. Barnes has hit lefties about 12 points higher than right-handers during his four years in the majors, but Martin’s numbers are basically identical against both southpaws and righties.
A worst-case scenario approach may entail management splitting playing time equally, especially while taking the necessary precautions regarding rests days for injury prevention. Beyond Martin and Barnes are Rocky Gale and Josh Thole, a pair of thirty-something journeyman catchers who don’t have much upside, especially in terms of offense. In Thole’s last big league endeavor during the 2016 season, he hit just .169/.254/.220 in 136 plate appearances for the Blue Jays. Gale has just three big league appearances, all of which came down the stretch of the regular season last year after rosters expanded.
As far as prospects go, switch-hitter Keibert Ruiz is still progressing. Despite his presence on the 40-man roster, Friedman doesn’t see the youngster making an impact until the 2020 season or beyond. Friedman said he sees Will Smith as being big league ready in terms of receiving and defense, but feels he still needs to refine his offensive skills at Triple-A Oklahoma City before he’s considered for the majors.
Martin is just three years removed from his last All-Star season when he hit 20 long balls and drove in 76 runs for the Blue Jays in 2016. With a spark of rejuvenation upon landing back in Los Angeles, he still feels he’s capable of producing.
“I was horrible last year,” Martin said. “Still a tough out, still could work a count, still hit the ball relatively hard, but it was a down year. I wasn’t as good as I can be. When you get older, they give an excuse for you, `Well, you’re getting old.’ But my body felt great. I got zero excuses.”