This holiday season, everybody wants a new catcher. Between free agency and the trade market, over a third of the league’s teams have added to their catcher mix this offseason, with most of those moves coming in the last few weeks. Catchers are finding new homes so fast that yesterday, my colleague Leo Morgenstern covered the Mets signing Omar Narváez and dealing James McCann to Baltimore, and Austin Hedges inking a one-year deal with Pittsburgh – and then two more backstops signed that afternoon. In Cincinnati, the Reds announced an agreement with Curt Casali (as well as first baseman/outfielder Wil Myers), designating Mike Moustakas for assignment in the process. And elsewhere in the NL Central, former Red and Tiger Tucker Barnhart got set to continue his tour of the teams closest to his home city of Indianapolis, joining the Chicago Cubs on a two-year, $6.5 million contract with a player option after the coming season. The two-time Gold Glover will pair with Yan Gomes to form a catching platoon after the Cubs lost three-time All-Star Willson Contreras to the rival Cardinals in free agency.
Barnhart did well to secure himself a two-year guarantee with the player option – of the eight free agent catchers who have signed major league deals this offseason, Contreras (five years), Christian Vázquez (three), Narváez (two), and Barnhart have earned multi-year commitments. Those other three are much more significant adds, as is reflected in their significantly higher total contract values. But Barnhart may have had extra motivation to lock down a second year – with a couple of months over eight years of service, he heads into this contract within reach of the 10-year service threshold that the Players Association calls the “holy grail for players.” Of course, while the money is guaranteed, the service time isn’t, but if Barnhart can remain healthy and productive enough to reach 10 years of service, his MLB pension will fully vest and he will notch a coveted milestone. The option adds another layer of player friendliness – if Barnhart bounces back from a down year in 2022, he’ll have a shot to test free agency again next winter, when, to be fair, the catcher market may once again be busy.
For the Cubs, Barnhart is a small piece of the puzzle in a busy offseason. The 31-year-old doesn’t offer much at the plate. In a platoon role for the Tigers, he posted career lows with a .253 wOBA and 63 wRC+ this season while returning to switch-hitting after batting exclusively from the left side for over two years. He has always hit right-handed pitching more adequately – an 86 career wRC+, compared to a 57 against lefties – so he slots comfortably into a platoon with the right-handed Gomes. In a typical year, his defense is strong enough to offset his weak bat – in 2021, for instance, he was worth a career-high 1.2 WAR in 116 games despite a wRC+ of 80. After a lot went wrong for Barnhart in Detroit last year, Steamer projects some regression to the mean in 2023, estimating a 76 wRC+ and 0.9 WAR over 78 games.
Barnhart’s Offensive and Defensive Components of WAR
Indeed, most of his value comes from crouching behind the plate, not standing over it. Barnhart’s defensive value over the course of his career has come mostly from three components: his stolen base prevention; his rating by the rGFP metric, which measures runs saved above average on good fielding plays including pitch blocking; and, perhaps most interestingly in the narrative of his career, his pitch framing. Back in 2018, Barnhart ranked second-to-last among all major league catchers with -14.5 framing runs above average (FRM). The Reds took notice and together they went to work. “I’d heard some things that I wasn’t a very good framer, but I wasn’t sure where my number was,” Barnhart told The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosencrans. “When I talked to [Reds catching coach] J.R. [House] we set up a gameplan to get me inside the top 10 in framing and I kind of laughed a little bit and said, ‘that’s going to be a big jump.’”
Barnhart would fall shy of the top 10, but he did wind up 16th in the majors with 4.1 runs above average, an impressive year-over-year improvement in any metric. The Fielding Bible’s rSZ and Statcast’s catcher framing runs metrics showed similarly dramatic improvements. He remained well above average in 2020 and ’21 before regressing marginally last year, but in his better framing years, the impact on his overall value is clear – if Barnhart and the Cubs can figure out how to make his improvements sustainable, that will serve the whole staff.
Tucker Barnhart’s Framing Metrics
|Year||FRM||rSZ||Catcher Framing Runs|
SOURCE: FanGraphs, Baseball Info Solutions, Statcast
Here are some beauties from Barnhart post transition, the first of which is from Opening Day 2019, his first big league game after working on framing:
Barnhart has also been a capable defender against stolen bases – since 2016, only J.T. Realmuto has cut down more would-be base stealers than Barnhart’s 140, and his 29.4% caught stealing percentage since the ’20 season is tied for ninth among the 51 catchers with at least 800 innings caught. Interestingly, his ability to throw runners out seems to come not from a particularly good pop time (32nd percentile in 2022) nor the strength of his arm (61st out of 84 qualifying catchers this year), but rather his exchange time of 0.68 seconds, which ranks 11th among qualifiers. The Cubs allowed the third-most stolen bases in baseball in 2022 – we can expect that to improve with Barnhart teaming up with Gomes, who profiles as remarkably similar to Barnhart in this skill set.
Chicago Cubs Stolen Base Prevention
|Player||Arm||Exchange||Pop Time (2B)||CS% (since 2020)|
Statcast metrics using 2022 average.
Earlier this week, the Cubs hosted a press conference introducing Dansby Swanson as their shortstop for the foreseeable future. In the two weeks prior, they added a middle of the rotation arm in Jameson Taillon (though the front of the rotation remains a concern), re-signed Drew Smyly, took a flyer on Cody Bellinger in center, and bolstered a weak bullpen with Brad Boxberger. All told, they’ve invested over a quarter of a billion dollars this month towards improvements, and as of Thursday night, had added 9.3 projected WAR to their 2023 club – the fourth-most of any team this offseason – including Barnhart’s 0.9.
Despite a strong second half last season and an impressive and expensive offseason, the Cubs still don’t look like they’re ready to compete for a division title. Our depth charts projections have Cubs starters ranked 23rd and the bullpen 28th, they still have some significant issues at the corner infield positions, and a Barnhart/Gomes platoon is a pretty significant downgrade from Contreras and Gomes. But hey, that level of spending indicates that Jed Hoyer (and the Rickettses) are intent on turning the ship around after their first pair of losing seasons since the 2016 World Series. And we live in a three-Wild Card world now – a few things fall their way and the Cubs could certainly find themselves playing for one of those spots.
Meanwhile, if you’re in line to get a catcher this offseason, stay in line! Remarkably, there are still catchers to be had, including Gary Sanchez, Roberto Perez, Jorge Alfaro, and surprising Phillies postseason influencer Kevin Plawecki. The Blue Jays, in theory, still have a surplus to trade from with Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, and Gabriel Moreno, though they may have decided that the market is too saturated to get the return they’d want. Arizona’s Daulton Varsho has been a popular name in the trade rumor mill, though after leading all of baseball with 18 outfield OAA last year – while still starting 18 games behind the dish – his days catching might be mostly behind him. The catcher carousel may be slowing soon, but there are deals yet to come.