It certainly felt as if we waited and waited and waited once more to finally see Jose Barrero with the Cincinnati Reds this season. The hamate injury he suffered early in the calendar year and subsequent surgery set him way back, the recovery process was far from linear, and even though he was likely rushed to the big leagues after a rough go of it on rehab in the minors, he eventually logged 174 PA in a disappointing overall 2022 season.
Jose Barrero is not a catcher, obviously. What he is, though, is a player who picked up 174 PA in 48 G at the big league level last season, numbers that confirm the obvious - that we barely got to see him play all year.
I mention Barrero because his big league time mirrors almost exactly that of Tyler Stephenson, even if the timing of their injuries meant they never really crossed paths in the Reds dugout this year. Stephenson, despite the brilliant start to his season, nearly mimicked Barrero in the playing time ledger, logging just 183 PA in 50 G all year before his broken collarbone eventually shut him down for good.
The collarbone came after the busted thumb put him on the sidelines for over a month, the busted thumb coming after dealing with repeated concussion issues. Catching, it need be emphasized, is brutal on the body. We barely got to see him play all year, either.
This article’s headline needs further explanation, as do most. When all is right with the Reds, the Reds need catching depth gets us closer. Stephenson is one of the best and brightest options behind the dish that the game has to offer, and when things go mostly swimmingly - like they did during a 2021 season in which he appeared in 132 G - the Reds boast one of the more elite players at the position that exist. All, though, rarely stays right behind the plate even in ideal scenarios, and the ability to make Stephenson’s career more sustainable with occasional days as the DH or at 1B would go a long, long way towards making the need for articles like these in future seasons.
It’s not as if the Reds haven’t been trying to find that person already. On five separate occasions since 2015, the Reds have used their 1st or 2nd round draft picks on catchers, with 1st rounder Mat Nelson a notable 1st round name alongside Stephenson and 2nd rounder Chris Okey having made the show briefly before being DFA’d. It’s just a long, hard, arduous process for even the best prospects behind the dish at that position to pick up all the nuance that comes with running a pitching staff, let alone staying healthy enough to figure out professional breaking balls from the batter’s box along the way.
Nelson, Jackson Miller, and Logan Tanner join Daniel Vellojin as the highest-rated catching depth the Reds have in their minor league system, yet none has even truly proven that they can provide the kind of two-way success at High-A Dayton that you’d love to see.
The names higher up on the depth chart than those - Austin Romine, Mark Kolozsvary, Mike Papierski, Aramis Garcia, Chuckie Robinson - struggled so mightily in their attempts at filling in for the injured Stephenson at the big league level that despite the excellent offense Tyler provided when healthy, the overall Reds catching position posted just a 58 wRC+ during the 2022 season. That was 3rd worst among catching units in all of baseball, their .216/.261/.327 line in 584 PA wholly forgettable, and their 4.6% walk rate also 3rd worst among the catching units of all 30 teams. Romine, whose 99 PA ranked 3rd on the team behind Stephenson and Garcia (115), is now a free agent.
Two tenets hold incredibly true in this situation, however.
No, there’s nothing the 2023 Reds are truly going to need given that they aren’t poised to invest enough overall to make it a season that figures to go anywhere. So while they need another catcher, that’s not the kind of one-spot find that will put them over the top while their owners continue to twiddle thumbs and wait for a more perfect time to do their once-a-decade spending. A cobbled together set of depth like the one they used during 2022 is likely all we’ll see right now, and while it’s not going to wow the world, it’s also not going to be The One Thing That Sinks the 2023 Reds [TM], either - plenty of other areas will lay claim to that, too.
Secondly, it’s not as if 110 OPS+ catchers are simply sitting around on the curbs wishing someone would give them a job. They are scarce. Everyone seeks players of half that talent, and when they find them, they have to pay a ransom to keep them. Even if the best catcher on the open market walked up to GABP and proclaimed his love and patronage of the franchise and begged for a market-rate deal, it would likely be more than the Reds would be willing to spend now and might not even keep him around for the next time the Reds owners, y’know, match that with their once-a-decade spending elsewhere.
So, I suppose this is less a plea for the Reds to sign Willson Contreras to a bumper deal this winter than it is something of a lamentation that they didn’t scoop up a top catching prospect while assembling their 27 top shortstop prospects this year. It’s a plea that Vellojin finds the stroke he had with Dayton while back at Chattanooga - where he lost it - next year, that Nelson will take off in his second full MiLB season in 2023 better than he did in his first full one this year. It’s a plea that the Reds uncover someone else to lighten the load on Tyler Stephenson now and going forward, to reduce the number of chances that another foul ball shatters another body part we all deem important with zero insurance policy in-house.
It’s just one request on a lengthy Reds laundry list at this juncture, but you can make a pretty good argument that it should be the most important one.