Not long after the Dodgers were eliminated from the 2019 postseason, one of the most popular topics of discussion was the team’s immediate plans at catcher, specifically which player would backup Will Smith.
Some fans felt the club should bring back Russell Martin on a short-term deal, primarily because of his abilities as a clubhouse leader and his skills related to grooming the younger players. Others felt the team should hang onto 30-year-old Austin Barnes, a player who has been in decline offensively since he slashed .289/.408/.486 over 102 games in 2017. There was even another group of folks that thought the Dodgers should explore another option altogether.
Amid that conjecture sat 21-year-old backstop Keibert Ruiz, a youngster who has seemingly sat in the Top 5 prospect rankings for the last handful of years. If it was not for a broken finger in the latter part of the 2019 season, the Venezuelan native might have found himself battling for a spot on the team’s big league 26-man roster in 2020 Cactus League play. More on Ruiz in just a bit.
When it came time to hand out contracts to players who were arbitration-eligible this winter, Barnes was among the first to receive a deal. The contract was for one year and $1.1 million, all of which is guaranteed—something a little unusual for an arb-related type of contract.
Regardless, the move is somewhat of an indicator that the Dodgers have faith in Barnesy to serve the backup role well, at least for the first half of the season. As far as additional depth goes, journeyman Rocky Gale may be the lucky one to get the call should an injury arrive early to either Smith or Barnes. In the same breath, there’s still the possibility the Dodgers sign another experienced backstop to provide even more depth.
As far as Barnes goes offensively, he’s barely hit above the Mendoza line the past two seasons. In 2018, he slashed just .205/.329/.290 with four homers in 100 games and 238 plate appearances. Last year, he hit .203/.293/..340 with five long balls in 75 games and 242 plate appearances, most of which came in the first half of the season before Smith was promoted.
Defensively, there aren’t many big league catchers mechanically sound as Barnes. His glove is fantastic and he’s trusted hugely by his pitching staff. However, would-be base stealers tend to capitalize on his below-average arm. After gunning down seven of 31 runners in 2017, he has thrown out just nine of 46 runners over the past two seasons combined.
How Barnes performs in the first half of the 2020 season could conceivably determine his future with the team. Should Barnes falter—coupled with an impressive first half of the season by Ruiz at Triple-A Oklahoma City—Ruiz could theoretically earn a big league promotion at some point, similar to the way Smith made his big league rise last season.
According to the Steamer projections found on Fangraphs, Barnes will slash .226/.323/.364 with five homers over 198 plate appearances in 50 games during the upcoming season.
Of course, there’s always the chance that Barnes returns to his 2017 form and challenges Smith for the bulk of playing time. Stranger things have happened.
It’s certainly a situation worth keeping an eye on as Ruiz lurks in the shadows for perhaps the final season.