Let’s get one thing out of the way before we dig too much deeper here: the Mat Latos trade was nothing sort of a massive success for the Cincinnati Reds. Yonder Alonso wasn’t going to play ahead of Joey Votto, and hasn’t been worth Votto’s high socks since the deal. Similarly, Latos proved to be a clear upgrade over Edinson Volquez in the great rotations of 2012-2013, and even did so at a much cheaper salary. Brad Boxberger had a few great moments, but it’s hard to truly cry foul about losing a reliever who’s been worth a grand total of 1.8 bWAR in 7 years since the deal.
The lone real qualm one could have with the deal was the decision to keep Devin Mesoraco over Yasmani Grandal at the time, though even Mesoraco’s case could be chalked up to freak injuries instead of mere underperformance. So, when you see a national writer like Jon Heyman continually refer to that 2011 swap as ‘ill-fated,’ know that’s frankly a big pile of bull honkey.
It’s worth noting, though, that Heyman’s most recent ill-fated reference to that trade being ‘ill-fated’ came late last week in his Inside MLB Notes column at Fancred, one that included that the Reds have inquired about Grandal in free agency.
In a vacuum, that’s a pretty harmless rumor. Grandal is the best free agent catcher on the market at the moment, and it’d be silly for any team not to check in with his camp to see what it is he’s looking for. Add-in that Grandal was drafted by the Reds under then-GM Walt Jocketty - who is still a part of the front office - and that he thrived under current Reds hitting coach Turner Ward when Ward was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it becomes a tad bit juicier.
Of course, it’s not even the first catching rumor the Reds have surfaced in so far this winter, either, as they’ve also been continually linked with Miami Marlins All Star J.T. Realmuto, along with many other teams. And while you may well be able to chalk up the inquiry about Grandal as former acquaintances checking in on one another, the Realmuto news paired with the Grandal inquiry certainly makes it appear that the Reds might have interest in revamping their catching situation.
Considering Tucker Barnhart was only signed to his four-year contract extension a little over one year ago - and has banked a Gold Glove since signing it - that’s a bit of an odd revelation, especially given how reasonable the dollar amount on Barnhart’s deal is. Obviously, that begs the chicken/egg question - are the Reds actively looking to upgrade from Barnhart, or are other teams so interested in acquiring Barnhart in a bigger deal that the Reds are trying to figure out what it would cost to replace him?
The Cleveland Indians, for instance, have long been trying to trim payroll while maintaining a club capable of competing for another World Series appearance, and that has led to them letting Michael Brantley walk in free agency, shipping Yan Gomes to Washington, and doing everything they could to shed a few million bucks in their swap of Carlos Santana for Edwin Encarnacion. On top of that, they’re still consistently atop the rumor mill with Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer on the block, a trade of each likely significantly reducing their 2019 payroll while bringing back big-league pieces. Kluber, in particular, has been of interest to the Reds for obvious reasons, and considering the Cleveland catching depth chart now consists of the incredibly lackluster Roberto Perez and Eric Haase in the wake of the Gomes deal - and that of Francisco Mejia to San Diego last trade deadline - perhaps Tucker is a prime piece Cleveland would desire as part of any Kluber package.
To me, it seems the latter scenario is one that’s much more likely to be behind the Reds exploring the top end of the catching market. Though Barnhart’s pitch framing numbers have ranked among the worst in the game (Grandal’s have been the best, coincidentally), he’s otherwise an incredible defender, his pitch blocking skills and ability to control the run game among the best around. He hits just enough to make for a pretty solid option back there, and at a total cost of just about $11.5 million total for the next three years (with an option for a fourth), he’s precisely the kind of bargain for every cost-conscious team out there. In other words, obviously most every team out there should have interest in him, and if he’s the kind of piece the Reds can use to land elite pitching - especially in a year where their payroll can absorb a high-priced catching replacement if needed - that’s an avenue they should realistically explore.
Grandal would certainly be a pricey back-fill at catcher, to be sure. He’s average 22 dingers a year over the last four seasons, owns a career 115 OPS+, and has those previously mentioned pitch-framing numbers supporting his case. He has seemingly moved past the torn ACL and PED suspension from his earlier days - his 2018 OPS+ of 121 actually being a career best mark - and despite his struggles in the 2018 postseason he still stands to land a four-year contract that would likely be the priciest free agent deal in Reds history. It is worth noting that he’s spent a decent bit of time playing 1B in his career - 50 games in the big leagues - so he could, in theory, also help take a bit of playing time pressure off Joey Votto as Votto inches into his late 30’s, and do so with significantly better offensive production there than what the Reds could expect from Barnhart and Curt Casali.
Given the acquisition of Tanner Roark and Friday’s blockbuster deal for Yasiel Puig, Alex Wood, and Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, it’s clear the Reds have every intention of reshaping this roster to the best of their ability. Catcher doesn’t exactly jump off the page as an obvious need - Tucker Barnhart ranks 15th in total fWAR over the last two years among the 29 MLB catchers with at least 600 PA in that time - but there is still room for some improvement there, especially if there’s another team out there that truly covets Barnhart and his team-friendly contract.