Better Backup Catcher Option for 2020: Austin Barnes or Russell Martin?

(Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports)

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.


35 thoughts on “Better Backup Catcher Option for 2020: Austin Barnes or Russell Martin?

  1. I agree Barnes will likely be the 2020 backup to Smith, though I wouldn’t mind having Martin back for another season. Barnes has been so frustrating to watch the last two seasons! Connor Wong was extremely productive after being promoted to AA last season and as he will turn 24 in May, It’s possible that he and Ruiz could share AAA at bats next season. The Dodgers will probably still like to have another veteran at OC and Wong also plays some IF.

    1. Offensively, Wong was huge last year. If he’s able to develop his arm and some better instincts for nailing base-stealers, he’ll be as good as any of the prospects the Dodgers have.

      1. I’m guessing because of his arm and receiving skills. Last year, he actually saw quite a bit of time at second and third base, which suggests the Dodgers might be considering grooming him as an infielder. After he was promoted from High-A to Double-A, he slashed an incredible .349/.393/.604 over the final 40 games of the season. He was an All-Star at Rancho and earned POTW the first week of September in the Texas League.

      2. If he can hit, he should be higher than mid 20’s on the prospect list. His scouting report says his Hit skill is a 40, his arm and field a 50. Overall 40. It also says the Dodgers look for athletic catchers, and he’s one of those. He’s a former shortstop. Even with that slash line he struck out 33% of the time at AA. At he’s listed at 28th on the list. We have 3 catchers and 3 second baseman listed in front of him. Not sure why he’s being talked about here.

  2. Assuming that it’s Barnes or Martin next year (and that may not be a valid assumption) I think the answer will rest on how much trade value Barnes has and how much salary Martin would want. Martin really seemed to enjoy himself here last year. I think he’d make a valuable addition to the organization once he decides to hang them up. Could really help with all the good catching prospects we have.

    1. He’s got a good arm as a reliever, too. Maybe bullpen coach is in his cards. I’d hate to see the Dodgers keep Barnesy on the 25-man just because he doesn’t have options, though. Along those same lines, my guess is that Yimi is non-tendered, especially when considering all the kids who are capable of throwing in relief.

      1. If Yimi could cut down on giving up homers he’d be an excellent bullpen piece. If they went back to the pre-2019 ball Yimi might give up a lot less homers. I’ve got to think AF really likes him or he would have already been gone. On the other hand maybe it’s just been Honey lobbying for him all these years.

      2. Yeah, if. His career WHIP is under 1. In ‘19 it was 0.866. That’s outstanding. 15 home runs? If he’s non tendered he will be picked up quickly. His spin rate alone makes him valuable.

      3. 26 man there Dennis…it changes next year…and I non tender many free agent catchers out there to saddle yourself with his weak bat.

  3. I loved Martin with the dodgers this year, I think he filled the role the FO wanted of him, I’d wouldn’t mind seeing him come back, but truthfully I doubt the dodgers could milk another effective year out of him.
    It’s obvious the team lost faith in Barnes, he didn’t do much to change their mind while he was in AAA.
    It’s time to look at other options for back up catcher, hopefully it will be somebody that can be the primary back stop if smith keeps struggling.
    I know I’m in the minority, or maybe even the lone voice in the wind, but I’m not 100% convinced Smith is ready to be the full time, all season catcher for 2020. Barnes had spans where he hit well but look where he is now. Signing a competent catcher like a Maldonado, would be good insurance in case smith doesn’t find his swing again, or regresses next season.

    1. Smith started great, but as you know I didn’t believe it. The league caught up with him as the league does. I guess he’s the starter though. Much might depend on what happens in Spring. If Barnes isn’t traded he might get a chance for redemption in Spring Training. I’ve been clear on my choice. Ruiz made it to AAA and looked good there. He’s my catcher for the future. I already traded Smith for Smith and I’ve run through him being in there instead of Kershaw more than a few times.

      Have to admit this is a World Series I don’t much care about.

      1. I went back and forth from the Lakers, baseball and reports on the Taylor testimony. Not much good news anywhere really. Like I said, I don’t care who wins the Series but I picked the ‘stros… so… don’t want to be wrong about that now do I. Being a National League guy, and bein’s that the Nationals never won anything… maybe I’ll start pulling for them. Have to think about it.

        Ok, I thought about it.

        Nope. Still don’t give a damm. They can both lose as far as I’m concerned.

      2. Another few feet and Soto’s home run would have landed in the Jackson Street BBQ parking lot. That guy is 20 years old. If he were a Dodger he would still be at AA. OR…. he would have been traded for a reliever.

  4. Now, now scoop don’t get bitter😀
    I’m rooting for the nats, tired of seeing the American League beat up on the National league.

    1. NL has actually won more World Series in this decade, 5-4 than the AL. Giants 3 times, Cardinals once and the Cubs once. They beat up on the NL in the all star game. They always have.

  5. Cubs Hire Ross, Pirates have a new president, and Oakland is supposed to be building a new stadium for the A’s that gets started in 2021.

    1. Ross is a good hire, Pittsburgh has the right idea and it’s about time in Oakland. But we have to ask…. will people show up?

  6. Stros not looking too good right now. Down 2 and heading to DC where the weather is going to be a factor. Greinke in game 3. If they end up losing the series to a wild card team, is their collapse worse than the Dodgers??? Snowed here in town again last night. Second time this year. Looks like we are in for a cold winter.

    1. As you so artfully put it several days ago Bear, you just never know which team will do what when. The Dodgers, with some discommodingly questionable leadership, did a face plant in the NLDS and now it would appear it’s Houston’s turn to cough up a hairball. It’s been interesting reading opinions on the whys and the hows like this morning’s read from Friedman about pitching in the post season. If you haven’t read it I suggest you do as it’s a collectors bag of “no sh*t Sherlock” if there ever was one. As Yogi would say, good pitching beats good hitting every time, and vice versa.

      It’s October, the air is cool, the balls are… well, who the hell knows what they do with the balls in post season, but unlike football where teams bring their own over-under inflated balls to play, teams in baseball are asked to play with the same tools. I think. I have no idea really, but I digress. The point is teams go through highs and lows at various points during the year and at the current time Houston can’t hit WRISP and Washington can. Go Nats. I guess. Unless you have a team in play, I know most fans would prefer to see games where both teams are rolling, the games are well played and intensely competitive with “may the best team win” being the outcome. Sometimes you just get snoozers.

      All that said, maybe this series will get interesting any day now. Let me know if it does because I still don’t care. Houston Washington. Meh. The sooner this is over the better.

      1. Very astute there Scoop. Everything AF has said since the season ended is a no crap Sherlock moment. The guy is a spin doctor. Sucks to be a Stro’s fan this morning. Some are suggesting the Dodgers should target Wheeler. Righty has some nasty stuff and is injury prone, just the kind of guy AF loves. Would not cost as much as Cole either, who Stros teammates think will sign with the Angels. Girardi is the Cubbies choice for skipper.

      2. I think you meant Girardi is the Phillies choice Bear. I think I have edit capability on my iPad (don’t on my phone). Want me to edit that?

        I think Wheeler is a good choice. Throws hard. Can eat some innings. Not sure who else might be available. I’ll look later. Making a Home Depot run first thing this morning.

    2. One good thing about getting knocked out early. You don’t have to go through the torture of losing the WS. (How about that for an optimistic take on a bad situation?)
      You’re dealing with snow Bear and I’m slowly gathering my evacuation stuff here in the north SF valley. We’re expecting high winds, low humidity and high temps. Exactly the kind of conditions that brought the fire to within a few blocks of my place about a week ago. Also earthquake weather. Holding my breath. (Crap, where did my optimism go to?)

      1. Be safe Jefe…..we had a bad one here a couple of years ago. It got as close as the Royal Gorge, about 8 mile west. Burned down the gift shop and did some damage to the bridge too. Yeah Scoop, my mistake, I was trying to give the Cubs 2 managers. Remember in the 60’s when they went with that rotating manager stuff? Leo was the main guy. Did not work out well for them. They still were losers.

      2. AF may very well decide the price is too steep dollar/contract length wise on Cole and/or Rendon but for players like that I think even Andrew wouldn’t let a draft pick get in the way of signing them.
        I remember the rotating manager experiment. All kinds of fun. Phils should have hired Girardi, Buck and Dusty as rotating managers. I’m sure they would have all been thrilled to share the job.

      3. Yeah I remember it very well too. You might be right about draft picks for those guys, but I still think they are not going that length or that amount of dollars for anyone. Probably was Bakers last shot at a managers job. I liked Dusty as a player, but he was like Roberts, could not really manage a bullpen or pitching staff. I do not know if you read Ball Four. I just loved Bouton’s description of Barney Schultz, who was the manager their only year in existence.. The Seattle Pilots……best hitter was Tommy Davis….yep,. the old Dodger…

      4. Ball Four, one of the best baseball books ever written. I loved Bouton’s style of writing and his general outlook on things.

  7. There certainly is a lot more news on the minor league side of things. A lot of guys becoming minor league free agents. One thing I totally forgot about is the QO and the fact that if the player turns it down, and Rendon and Cole most certainly will, there is a draft choice loss assigned to the team that signs the player. Well, we all know what ol Andy thinks of losing draft picks.

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