The idea of the Cincinnati Reds turning the calendar to May without the healthy services of Devin Mesoraco wasn't foreign to anyone who's seen the team play over the last two seasons. In fact, it was even kicked around as a legitimate concern, one that had many fans clamoring to keep Brayan Pena on-board after two years of cromulent service as the team's part-time backstop.
We all were concerned about Mesoraco's hip, of course, since the injury and subsequent surgery he faced were things few catchers have ever had to deal with. The Reds themselves obviously had some reservations as Mes chose his recovery path, even going so far as to try out left field as an option should the art of squatting no longer be in his defensive quiver.
When Pena signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, all eyes turned to Tucker Barnhart as the 2016 season loomed, next in line should Mes not be able to reclaim his full-time duties behind the plate. Mesoraco's hip wasn't exactly 100% through the season's first month, and the rigors of catching post-surgery cost him time on the bench with both groin soreness and what we thought was a bout of shoulder soreness, each of which (along with regular scheduled rest) allowed Barnhart ample playing time as the games rolled on.
Monday's revelation that Mesoraco's shoulder was less sore and more torn, however, means that the bulk of the 2016 catching duties will in fact fall to Barnhart, albeit not in the way in which we all initially feared.
Mesoraco's lost 2015 paired with Pena's age allowed Barnhart to make a significant contribution to the Reds last year, one which Grimey looked at closely at season's end. It was significant in more than just quantity, too, as Tucker chipped in with a .324 OBP in 274 PA and threw out a relatively respectable 15 of the 52 baserunners that tried to steal on him. Aspects, as Grimey noted, that have often drawn comparisons between Barnhart and former Reds backstop Ryan Hanigan.
Hanigan's name again came up when C. Trent Rosecrans looked at the hot start to the 2016 season enjoyed by Barnhart just last week, alongside fellow former Red (and stalwart staff anchor) David Ross. Their names join Tucker's in the conversation about being defense-first catchers that have entire pitching staffs appreciative of their game-calling abilities, two attributes that had Tucker in the big leagues as early as age 23 despite owning just a .260/.341/.356 career line in 1636 career MiLB PAs.
So, we have the retrospective look at Tucker, the one that highlights his defensive wizardry (he was a 2011 MiLB Gold Glove winner and former Southern League All Star) and his significantly greater propensity to hit left-handed against RHP than right-handed against LHP. His history was again detailed in Tony's 2016 Red Report. What we don't know is how he'll hold up to the rigors of being a team's everyday catcher, since only once has he topped 400 PA in a calendar year (and that came with the added Arizona Fall League season in 2013).
Tucker has already logged 52 PA in part-time duty with the Reds in 2016. The only other catchers in the system that would even enter the conversation for big league duty are Ramon Cabrera (30 career MLB PA), Kyle Skipworth (60-day DL), and Jordan Pacheco (only 37 MLB G at C in last 3 seasons). Cabrera's a switch-hitter who has hit LHP better than RHP in every stop along the way in his career, so there's a decent chance he'll get tasked with catching duties on days when the Reds face a tough left-handed starter. Similarly, Pacheco owns a better career MLB line against southpaws, which means there's a solid possibility of him donning the heavy gear from time to time in those scenarios for the remainder of 2016, too.
Still, there's every reason to believe that Tucker's righty-thumping and plus defense have him the lineup up to five times every week. That's a lot to ask of any catcher, but it's the kind of workload the team had intended for Mesoraco when they signed him to the 4 year, $28 million contract extension after his All Star campaign in 2014, and now there's no Mesoraco (or specifically added replacement) to pick up that slack.
The start to Tucker's 2016 has been stellar, and a window of opportunity has opened for him to show how real those early returns truly are. The circumstances surrounding that window are dang unfortunate, but that's the humor baseball gods enjoy. The result: Tucker Barnhart is now the Reds go-to starting catcher for the 2016 season.