In many of our conversations this winter, there’s no doubt that player depth has been a central part of the discussions. Several years ago, the catching department was one of the organizational strongholds before other positions finally started to catch up. In this column, we’ll take a look at how the catchers of the Dodgers shape up today and what to conceivably expect over the next season.
Prior to 2020, Los Angeles was seemingly stronger with Connor Wong in its prospect rankings, a top-heavy offensive backstop who was one of the trade pieces that helped land Mookie Betts. However, with 19-year-old blue-chipper Diego Cartaya and 23-year-old Hunter Feduccia lurking on the farm, the Dodgers did not miss a beat of depth with the departure of Wong.
Barnes is a necessity from the standpoint of his outstanding pitch-framing skills and his excellent ability to call a game. During the 2020 shortened season, he slashed .244/.353/.314 over 104 plate appearances, which was arguably his best offensive output since his 2017 campaign.
According to Statcast figures on Baseball Savant, Barnes was the seventh-best framer in the majors last year. Additionally, there’s no question the 31-year-old’s leadership skills are valued on a team populated with plenty of youngsters. For all intents and purposes, Barnes is also the personal catcher of resident ace Clayton Kershaw.
Smith is much more known for his offensive skills, although his overall mechanics and throwing arm might be rated better than Barnes. At 5-foot-10 and 190 lb., Smith has amazing pop for a relatively small frame. Last season, he slashed a very impressive .289/.401/.579 with eight long balls over 137 PA. Accordingly, Smith produced a 1.7 bWAR last year compared to Barnes’ 0.7. Smith’s career caught-stealing percentage is 23%, with Barnes not far behind at 21%.
Years ago, many fans genuinely believed that Ruiz would arrive to the majors before Smith, even though Ruiz is three years younger. There’s a ton of promise with the Venezuela native, as he’s still ranked as the organization’s best prospect by MLB Pipeline. His mechanics are fantastic for a catcher of his age, but he possesses a slightly below average arm, which isn’t necessarily as terrible as it was in previous generations when swiping bags was much more popular.
There’s a chance the Dodgers could carry three catchers at some point this year, but Ruiz’s best chance of joining Barnes and Smith at the big-league level could come only if he proves himself as a valid offensive contributor. Otherwise, the 26th spot probably does not warrant a third catcher. Ruiz arrived late to camp this spring, setting him back just a bit, but it should not affect his bearings once the season hits high gear next month. Ruiz will be the first player called to the majors in the event of an injury or ailment to either Barnes or Smith.
With regards to additional depth, 33-year-old NRI Tim Federowicz was brought back for tertiary depth and to mentor youngsters like Ruiz at the Triple-A level. 26-year-old Stevie Berman was also an NRI this year, as was Feduccia.
Smith will be the primary catcher and will likely be rested every fourth day or so, if not more.
“If you look at timeshare, I guess Barnes is a backup, but I don’t see it as such,” skipper Dave Roberts said at the beginning of camp. “I think it’s a 1 and 1A. They’re both very valuable, and I think that we’ve done a good job of using both of them and exploiting strengths and things to help us win baseball games.”
As far as projections go, ZiPS has Smith slashing .241/.334/.484 with 23 homers over 374 PA. Barnes is projected at .227/.329/.342 with six homers over 278 PA.
Nevertheless, with his veteran presence and pitch-framing skills, Barnes’ value to the club is much more meaningful than a mediocre stat line.