When he’s been in-gear and in-lineup, however, he’s looked every bit the part of one of the very, very few people on the planet who can catch his ass off and sock opposing pitchers, too - since the start of the 2020 season, there have been 51 MLB catchers who’ve logged at least 450 PA and his 119 wRC+ in that span ranks tied for 9th with Willson Contreras, for instance.
The ‘he’ hero in that statement is Cincinnati Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson. His topical offensive comparison, Willson Contreras, will turn 31 years old in May, and MLB Trade Rumors predicted he’d land a 4-year, $84 million contract in free agency this winter in their annual listing of Top 50 free agents with predictions.
Stephenson is just 26 years of age, yet to even reach arbitration eligibility, and is a rare combination of rare combinations. Not only is he one of the precious few catchers in modern baseball who looks like he knows what he’s doing on defense and while calling a game, he’s also an offensive force that stacks up with some of the better overall hitters regardless of position. That’s rare combination A, though, since rare combination B is much less enjoyable to discuss these days.
Rare combination B is that he’s an actually viable big league caliber player on the roster of the Cincinnati Reds, a club that climbed the high-dive before launching into this particular rebuild. And when a player’s timeline doesn’t look to be in-line with what’s going on around him on a club as frugal as the Reds, well, it’s enough to wonder why the Reds aren’t trying to trade him, too.
Of course cashing in on a player like Stephenson before his allotted time here is up makes sense. Get something for him while you can, and such. But that presumes that his timeline with the Reds is a previously fixed segment that’s unable to be altered, something that’s tangibly false in the modern baseball world that’s awash with cash.
The Reds - yes, these Cincinnati Reds - are awash with cash, even if they’d like you to forget that aspect. They’ve got money to spend, money for contract extensions for the best of their current, thin crop of quality players, players who fit the timelines of the current prospects despite looking like swans among ugly ducklings on the current roster. And for the same reasons that Stephenson looks like such a potentially attractive trade chip right now, he also looks like exactly the kind of player any competent franchise out there would sign to a contract extension yesterday.
From the same Ken Rosenthal piece out of The Athletic that we linked to yesterday, discussing why the frugal Oakland A’s might shop catcher Sean Murphy, himself a valuable, cheap piece:
But even clubs that appear relatively set — the Yankees, for example — could be in the mix for Murphy. The league-wide .663 OPS at catcher last season was the lowest since 1989 (.635).
A .635 OPS is terrible. If you’ll dig back deep enough into your nightmares to remember the baseball career of Willy Taveras, well, you’ll recall that his career OPS was .647. Billy Hamilton’s career OPS while a member of the Reds was .631. That is what big league catching offense looks like today. When stacked up against the .854 OPS posted by Stephenson last season (or the .823 OPS he owns in his brief career), well, it’s pretty clear what the kid on the Reds roster is capable of when out there.
When you’ve got a piece that rare who’s still plenty young enough to play a pivotal role in a dream 2026 scenario where Elly De La Cruz is the second coming of Francisco Lindor, Noelvi Marte is doing an excellent Justin Turner impersonation, and Hunter Greene owns a 14.4 K/9, that’s precisely where you spend your money. Add-in that when the Joey Votto and Mike Moustakas come off the books at the end of 2022 there’s not a single guaranteed contract on the entire franchise ledger and picking Stephenson to be the next franchise cornerstone right here, right now becomes almost paramount.
Where else will the Reds find the kind of catching they’d need for that 2026 dream if they don’t? From their minors, which appears pretty barren at the moment at catcher? From free agency, where Willson Contreras’ contract this winter will help set the bar for price?
From the Reds perspective, it seems pretty obvious why they’d be silly not to pursue an extension with Stephenson now, and as often as it takes to get him to say yes. The only risk, of course, is that he plays the single most brutal position in the game today, one that grinds the players back there to moosh more rapidly than anywhere else on the diamond.
Ah, right - Tyler’s had a lengthy injury history back there already. While none of them have been long-term debilitating in a way that the injuries suffered by the last catcher the Reds signed to a long-term deal were, they’ve still managed to keep him sidelined almost more often than not, and while coming back from them at 100% is nice, having to play without a stud like that for extended periods is not - especially if that player’s taking up an increasingly large chunk of your payroll. It’s almost enough to make me scream ‘IT’S BORDERLINE CRIMINAL FOR MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL TEAMS TO HAVE A CHEAP, PRE-ARB CATCHER WITH ALL-STAR TALENT AND THROW SEASON AFTER SEASON AWAY REBUILDING BEFORE THEN TRYING TO THREAD THE NEEDLE OF ‘WE MIGHT BE GOOD IN A COUPLE MORE YEARS AND HE MIGHT STILL BE HEALTHY’,’ but I’m not sure I’ve got that kind of energy in me today.
It’ll be the injury history that’s the crux in any contract extension talks between the Reds and Tyler, since Tyler - and his reps - will surely contend that they’d rather him finally put together a full, breakout season before leveraging that into dollar talk. Unless, of course, they look at the injuries he’s already faced and decide that getting some guarantee now in case even more filth hits the fan later is more wise. (We aren’t talking about a Joe Mauer or Buster Posey deal at this juncture, to be quite clear, but the kind of pre-arb deal the Atlanta Braves have signed with roughly 74 players over the last three years kind of deal.)
For the Reds, on the other hand, the only real question would seem to be will we ever invest in a baseball player who actually costs a bit of money ever again? The lexicology of the word ‘rebuild’ does suggest, if I’m not mistaken, that there’s building being done around something central, and if not around a franchise cornerstone at the hardest position to find out there, then where? Where...where are ya gonna go spend?