For someone who was once a 10th round draft pick — as a high school catcher, no less — Tucker Barnhart has earned himself a pretty decent job over the years. Last season was already the sixth-straight season in which he caught at least half of the Cincinnati Reds’ games, and he’s third among active Reds in games played with the team. In that time, he’s won two Gold Glove awards behind the plate, establishing himself as one of the game’s hardest-working defensive catchers while hitting just enough to keep his lineup spot from becoming a black hole.
And yet, the days of Barnhart being Cincinnati’s primary catcher have always had an expiration date, and the name of that expiration date is Tyler Stephenson. In 2015, the first year Barnhart played a significant amount of time at the big league level, the Reds took Stephenson — also a high school catcher — in the first round of the draft. Since then, the assumption has always been that he would be the catcher of the future, whenever his slow development track finally landed him in the majors.
Now, nearly six years after first becoming a pro, Stephenson is finally set to break spring training with the big league roster. Curt Casali, the backup to Barnhart since 2018, was non-tendered this winter, and neither of the two catchers the Reds added — Deivy Grullon and Rocky Gale — were brought in to seriously compete for an MLB job. Stephenson is a major leaguer now, and after three-straight seasons of above-average offense in the minors and an exciting brief stint in Cincinnati in 2020, expectations for him are high. But without the DH, the catcher’s job is going to be a zero-sum game. Every day Stephenson starts is a day that Barnhart doesn’t, and every day that Barnhart doesn’t play could have a real impact on his future.
Near the end of the 2017 season, Barnhart signed a four-year contract extension worth $16 million that bought out three arbitration years as well as a year of free agency. It was a fine decision for both sides to make — Barnhart, having only made the league minimum to that point and hardly in the process of establishing himself as a star, got to guarantee himself a good bit of money, while the Reds locked in a starter at a very cheap rate. Trying to assess Barnhart’s value over the first three years after that deal was made is a window into how tricky it is to analyze catchers in the first place. Baseball-Reference pegs him at 2.4 WAR from 2018-20, while FanGraphs has him at 1.1 WAR. As the primary catcher, though, Barnhart has played a big role in nudging forward a resurgent Reds pitching staff, which surely has value to the organization that doesn’t show up in any database. It’s important not to overvalue intangible qualities like that, but for someone making just $4 million a year, it is something worth mentioning.
The 2021 season, though, is the last year his price is that low. His team option for 2022 is priced at $7.5 million, a dollar amount that’s not only difficult to imagine Cincinnati committing to after this offseason, but also hard to see being reflective of his market value. Just three catchers signed for more than that in annual value this winter, and one of those — Yadier Molina — is a 38-year-old getting paid more for his reputation than actual on-field production. Casali, who has actual been worth more FanGraphs WAR than Barnhart over the last three years, got only $1.5 million from the Giants. Being a second-division starting catcher isn’t a good way to get rich in baseball. (OK fine, they’re still kind of rich).
The Reds could decline Barnhart’s team option and still bring him back for a smaller sum of money, but doing so would also involve allowing him to negotiate with 29 other teams as well. If Stephenson breaks out enough to establish himself as the starter heading into 2022, Barnhart may prefer to find another destination in which he can catch 100 games a year. On the other hand, the Reds don’t have an obvious second catcher candidate in house to take Barnhart’s roster spot if he leaves, which means the team could be willing to pay up to retain some stability behind the plate. Stephenson could also struggle badly in his first run at big league pitching, and put the Reds in a legitimate bind regarding which catcher to invest in moving forward.
The ideal, obviously, is that both Barnhart and Stephenson are excellent. Maybe Barnhart shows that his sneaky power breakout in 2020 (a .184 ISO that dwarfed his career average by 60 points) and double-digit walk rates are no joke while also seeing his .231 BABIP normalize enough that he becomes an above-average stick in the lineup in addition to being an asset behind the plate, and maybe Stephenson manages to be a little bit better while catching 70 games and staying healthy. That would probably get Barnhart a multi-year payday in free agency, and still leave the Reds feeling good about their backstop situation for the foreseeable future. Everyone wins.
Failing that, though, Barnhart is probably left in the unenviable position of needing to mentor his replacement behind the dish while also trying to prove he’s still worthy of starting himself. And honestly, I’d bet on him doing both of those jobs quite well. Despite their relatively small market value, quality catchers aren’t easy to find around the game. Barnhart is exceptional at blocking balls and calling games, his receiving skills have been steadily improving for years, and I still think he might have another gear as a hitter. The Reds may not be willing to pay him in 2022, but some team will, and a few more probably will after that. As high school catching draftees go, that’s an uncommon success story. Let’s hope the team’s next one is even better.