As the 2020 roster conjecture is just beginning to heat up, one of the early conversations stirring surrounds how the Dodgers might handle the future duties at catcher.
As it stands now, the starting catching job belongs to Will Smith. Heading into spring training the job is certainly his to lose. After setting Los Angeles on fire in his first weeks as a big leaguer right after the All-Star break, the 24-year-old Louisville product settled down to slash .253/.337/.571. However, he did manage to slug 15 long balls and 42 RBI in just 54 games, which is a huge offensive upgrade from what the team had out of the catching spot in recent years. On top of that, his mechanics and throwing arm are considered top-notch by MLB standards.
As far as prospects go, 21-year-old Keibert Ruiz is ranked among the organization’s Top 3 farmhands. Right after being promoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City at the midway point of 2019, the switch-hitting native of Venezuela broke a finger on his throwing hand, causing him to miss the remainder of the regular season. Across two levels of the farm last year, he hit .261/.331/.361 with six long balls and 34 RBI over 314 AB in 85 games.
Ruiz is already part of the 40-man roster, but chances are very slim he’ll be on the big league active roster come Opening Day. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean he won’t see any major league action at some point next year.
All that said, the biggest question mark heading into 2020 is determining which player backs up Smith in the bigs, at least for the early part of the year. A few weeks back, we talked about the inclusion of either Austin Barnes or Russell Martin on next year’s roster. Conceivably, the Dodgers could go with either player as the No. 2. Or, they may elect to go with a different option altogether and scour the free agent market for a better fit.
Last year, Martin hit .220 with six long balls in 209 AB. Barnes hit .203 with five homers in 212 major league AB. Barnes has no options on his contract, so if he is tendered a contract in the coming weeks, that means he’ll need to stay on the 26-man roster for the entirety of the season, unless the team decides to cut ties with him.
Underneath Ruiz on the depth chart is Connor Wong, who may conceivably start the 2020 season at the Triple-A level. Across two levels last year, the 23-year-old righty hitter slashed .281/.336/.541 with 24 doubles, seven triples, 24 homers and 82 RBI, in addition to stealing 11 bases. He was a mid-season All-Star for the Cal League and was named an organizational All-Star by MiLB.com at the end of the year. In the first week of September, Wong collected Player of the Week honors in the Texas League.
If there’s a knock on Wong, it’s that his catching mechanics and arm strength aren’t anywhere near those of Smith and Ruiz. Nevertheless, Wong saw some significant time at both second or third base last year, indicating that the organization may be considering him in other capacities.
Proceeding downward—or upward, in the eyes of some—we come across Diego Cartaya, a 18-year-old backstop from Venezuela who some pundits consider one of the best prospects in the Los Angeles system.
The right-handed hitting Cartaya began his endeavors this year in the Dominican Summer League, but he arrived on United States soil just in time to provide a decent sample size in the 2019 Arizona Rookie League. There, as a 17-year-old, he slashed .281/.343/.432 with four homers, 12 doubles and two triples over just 49 games. Additionally, he threw out nine of 37 would-be base-stealers, which isn’t too shabby since he’s competing with many prospects several years older than him.
Now that he’s 18, the Dodgers may loosen the reigns a bit on the youngster. In theory, Cartaya may start out in the AZL League and move up to Rookie League at Ogden later in the year; or, the Dodgers may elect to bump him up to Low-A Great Lakes immediately.
Even below Cartaya, there still remains some impressive names. A pair of left-handed hitting catchers, Tre Todd and Hunter Feduccia, were both snagged in the 2018 draft. In addition, Gersel Pitre is still around. The righty hitting Pitre was signed as free agent out of Venezuela as a 17 year old way back in 2013.
As far as the backup spot goes in the big leagues next year, I think that Barnes will be tendered a contract and get the nod out of spring training, so long that he’s healthy and can produce reasonably during Cactus League play. If Barnes performs poorly over the first several months of the regular season, Ruiz could be ready for a promotion.
Notwithstanding, because of the lack of players who are not MLB-ready, the team may decide to snag a veteran free agent backstop sometime over the next two months.