Seemingly, there’s at least a little bit of controversy at the catcher spot for the Dodgers with each passing winter.
The good news about 2020, though, is the fact that Will Smith will hold down the primary catching spot heading into spring camp. Sure, he’s being criticized for his offensive drop-off during the final four weeks of the year, but for all intents and purposes, the starting job is his to lose. As it stands, it’s tough to argue otherwise, unless the Dodgers decide to make a huge acquisition this offseason in terms of a new backstop.
Yet, as Smith is cemented as next year’s starter, the biggest question is who will become his backup. With Smith’s emergence after the 2019 All-Star break, Austin Barnes was the victim who lost a spot on the active roster. Barnes ended up spending the majority of the second-half with Triple-A Oklahoma City until rosters expanded at the beginning of September. While this was happening, veteran Russell Martin maintained his duties as the big league backup.
Once the 2019 World Series runs its course, Martin will become a free agent. Before the 2020 season begins, his 37th birthday will have passed.
Looking ahead, the Dodgers basically have three options. Trust Barnes to backup Smith, sign Martin to another short-term deal, or acquire someone completely new.
If the Dodgers decide to go with Barnes as the secondary catcher at the big league level, they’ll still need to find some suitable cover should an injury arise. Last summer after Smith was promoted, the Dodgers acquired 35-year-old journeyman Jose Lobaton from the Mariners for cash, but it’s hard to say at this point if Lobaton will return or hit the MiLB free agent market. During his time at OKC in 2019, Lobaton hit .234 with four doubles and one home run over 47 AB.
At some point, Keibert Ruiz will be considered for a promotion to the big leagues, but it probably won’t happen right away. Even though 21 year old is already part of the team’s 40-man roster, he still hasn’t seen much time at Triple-A. Ruiz was promoted to OKC for the first time last July; however, he ended up breaking a finger on his throwing hand within a few weeks of the promotion, which kept him out for the remainder of the season. Across two levels of the farm last year, the switch-hitting native of Venezuela hit .261/.331/.361 with six long balls and 34 RBI over 314 AB in 85 games.
The fact that Ruiz missed so much time last season certainly doesn’t push up his arrival date.
If the Dodgers decide to bring back Martin, they will realistically be saying goodbye to Barnes. Since Barnes used his third and final contract option this year, he’ll need to stay on the big league roster for the entirety of next year, if the club does indeed decide to tender him a contract this winter. Otherwise, the only other option is a release. Coincidentally, this is exactly the same scenario Yimi Garcia found himself in last season.
Personally, I can’t see the Dodgers not tendering Barnes a deal. Despite his below average arm and his recent offensive dropoff, his mechanics behind the plate are very much above average. His pitch-framing skills are decent, and he’s extremely intelligent when it comes to calling a game. Undoubtedly, there is some value.
Last year, Martin was successful in throwing out five of 28 would-be base-stealers. During his time in the bigs in 2019, Barnes was 5-for-23. Martin hit .220 with six long balls in 209 AB. Barnes hit .203 with five homers in 212 major league AB.
So, unless the Dodgers decide to bring somebody in from the outside, there’s a good chance that Barnesy reports to Camelback Ranch with the remainder of his battery mates in February.
Speaking of players from the outside, there are quite a few catchers who will be testing the free agent market this winter. Former Dodger Yasmani Grandal, who hit .246/.380/.468 with 28 home runs and 77 RBI for the Brewers last year, will be headlining the free agent market, although there’a a very slim chance Los Angeles makes a play for the 30-year-old veteran.
A few other names of note on the free agent market in addition to Martin include Jason Castro, Robinson Chirinos, Martin Maldonado, Alex Avila, Jonathan Lucroy, Welington Castillo and Francisco Cervelli.
Aside from Martin’s clubhouse presence and superior leadership skills, the comparison between him and Barnes at this stage of the game is pretty much a push. While it’s hard to tell exactly what Friedman has in mind heading into the winter, my best guess is that Barnes opens the season as the backup to Smith, with the team making some kind of move to assure extra depth over the coming months—most likely a catcher with at least one player option on his contract while being expendable if and when Ruiz shows he’s ready.