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Just how much will we see of Cincinnati Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson in 2022?

All the talent in the world packed into...400? 450 PA?

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

291, 403, 397, 437, 445, 422, 296, 348, 338, 293, 352, 304, 371, 352, 440, 333, 420, 423, 522, 364, 110*, 388

From Benito Santiago through Jason LaRue, David Ross, Paul Bako, Ramon Hernandez, Ryan Hanigan, Devin Mesoraco, Brayan Peña, and Tucker Barnhart, the above list of seemingly random numbers is actually the exact number of PA logged by the ‘starting’ catchers of the Cincinnati Reds in each year dating back to 2000. Outside of Barnhart’s 522 PA back in the go-go 2018 season, that doesn’t exactly reveal that the Reds like to pen their backstop’s name in the lineups everyday, set it, and forget it.

Of course, the fact that there’s been a stalwart 1B in the lineup almost everyday for the last 15 years has surely impacted some of this. For many franchises, it’s been easy to slide their C to 1B once or twice a week to keep their bat in the lineup and take pressure off the pair of knees, but that’s not exactly been an option for the Reds with Joey Votto putting up Hall of Fame numbers for a decade and a half.

That there is now a universal DH in Major League Baseball and that Barnhart is now with the Detroit Tigers has put writing on the wall that this year, 2022, will be The Year of Tyler Stephenson. Rightly so, too, with those expectations - the former 1st round pick hit a robust .286/.366/.431 across 402* PA during his rookie season last year, numbers that in many years would’ve had him right at the top of Rookie of the Year voting. Add-in that the team’s backup backstop situation is a toss-up between Aramis Garcia and Andrew Knapp, both of whom are only in camp on minor-league deals, and it’s clear the Reds are placing their full faith in Stephenson being not just a catcher on whom they can lean almost daily, but also a right-handed thumper in a lineup nearly devoid of such things.

Eugenio Suarez and Nick Castellanos aren’t around anymore, you’ll surely recall.

Still, while I’m feverishly optimistic that Stephenson goes HAM this year in a big way, I can’t help but wonder just how much the Reds are going to ask from him this year. While the DH spot in the lineup everyday does, in theory, give them more opportunities to get his bat in the lineup while his knees rest, it hasn’t exactly been clear that’s a priority from what the front office has put together this offseason. Guaranteed free agent money to Donovan Solano and Colin Moran seems to imply there could be a platoon DH in play, while age and foot injury concerns with Mike Moustakas make him pretty much the prototype for what the DH was originally designed to house. Not to mention that Votto on the cusp of his 39th birthday probably warrants some time at DH, too.

Salvador Perez logged 665 total PA last year, with a mighty 501 of those coming as a catcher. All told, 10 players whose primary position was catcher put up over 440 PA, with JT Realmuto’s 537 a distant second to Perez on that leaderboard. If I squint, I think I see the Reds ideal number of PA for Stephenson in 2022 to be somewhere in the 450 range, a number that would’ve put him 8th overall last season, right in between Buster Posey and Sean Murphy - two players whose bat was good enough to warrant them getting into the lineup in spots aside from just as starting catcher.

That dream, though, includes a lot of non-Stephenson things going dreamily, too. That dream doesn’t have Votto getting hit on the thumb and missing a month. It doesn’t have Solano pulling a hammy and missing time, an injury that trickles down into impacting which right-handed bat gets platoon DH time opposite Moran. It doesn’t include Moose spending more time on the IL, either, a domino effect that would probably push Solano/Moran into 3B cover and open up everyday DH duties.

(For the record, I’m not saying getting regular PA for Colin Moran is ‘my’ dream, I’m just trying to unwind what the Reds are and have been hoping for after signing the players they signed this winter.)

The reality is, finding ways to get Stephenson more PA than ~450 likely means he’s getting them at 1B and DH, and if that’s the case, he’s likely getting more of those because something else went wrong. And while that in and of itself isn’t too much of a concern - his bat is plenty good to make sure it’s in the lineup as often as possible - moving him off catcher to one of 1B/DH means the Reds are forced to put someone in that same lineup at catcher with a career OPS+ of 72 (Garcia) or 71 (Knapp).

Those are the kind of numbers that make me rue not having a better backup catcher around, frankly. That’s hardly the kind of luxury most teams out there can stomach, admittedly, but even Barnhart’s career 83 OPS+ sounds juicy in comparison. Roster as it is, though, I think the only way getting more PA for Stephenson this year that makes the entirety of the 2022 lineup better is by asking him to simply catch more games, and I’m really not sure that’s the best end-game for the long run, something the rest of the offseason moves by the Reds have suggested they’re prioritizing at this point in their lifecycle.

450 PA from a budding All Star should still provide a whole lot of pop and purpose, though, as Stephenson takes the next step this year to being key-est of key cornerstones of this franchise for the next decade.

*Thanks to many pinch-hit appearances and some fill-in at 1B when Votto was hurt, only 284 of those PA came as a catcher, hence why his total’s not listed up top as Barnhart’s total PA as a catcher exceeded that.