A New Free Agent Catching Target Pops Up for the Chicago Cubs

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A New Free Agent Catching Target Pops Up for the Chicago Cubs

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs reported intentions in the catching market this offseason have been all over the place. There was some initial smoke about a trade for one of the Blue Jays catchers. Then the free agent speculation started up (Christian Vázquez? Omar Narváez?). And most recently, to everyone’s surprise the Cubs were listed as one of the teams in on this winter’s prize trade candidate, Sean Murphy.

While I do think the Cubs are looking to make an upgrade behind the plate, either a 1-A catcher, or someone who can share meaningful time with Yan Gomes, I tend to think a big time trade with the A’s or Blue Jays is pretty unlikely. And the latest from Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney indicates the same: “The Cubs are focused on free agents at premium positions and are not heavily involved in trade discussions at this point.”

But don’t let that discourage you, because there are some good catchers out there in free agency, and the Cubs are pretty clearly involved.

With Willson Contreras likely headed elsewhere, the Cubs are considering multiple catchers to pair with Yan Gomes, including Christian Vázquez, who has been a part of World Series-winning teams with the Red Sox and Houston Astros. The Cubs also have two-time Gold Glove winner Tucker Barnhart on their radar. Barnhart grew up in the Indianapolis area, developed into a solid catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, and then struggled with the Detroit Tigers this year (.554 OPS).

We already knew about Vázquez — who recently started following Bleacher Nation on Twitter … for whatever that’s worth to you — and I still believe he’s the Cubs top target. But Barnhart is a new name for us. Of course, it’s not an unfamiliar one.

Cubs fans will remember Barnhart from his eight seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, where he was routinely a below-average bat, but was otherwise (to my memory) a solid presence behind the plate. But apparently, my memory has gaps. Because in that department (at least, according to the advanced defensive metrics), Barnhart has lagged behind. Further behind than I would’ve guessed before looking it up. This is really throwing me for a loop.

From 2015 through 2022, Barnhart’s -24 catcher framing runs ranks 209th out of 216 qualified catchers, that’s well behind Willson Contreras (-14), who gets dinged for his framing all the time. And while there’s a lot more that goes into a catcher’s work behind the plate beyond framing (like calling a game/working with the pitchers), that’s not something we can just ignore (Robo-umps may be coming eventually, but they aren’t here this year).

While we’re on the negatives, I’ll add that Barnhart’s 1.99 pop time ranked 45th of 84 catchers last season (Contreras, 1.93, was 12th), and that was actually one of the best full-season marks of his career. He was also earned -6 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) last season, 73rd among all catchers. Though, his DRS has been all over the place over the years.

2022: -6 DRS (73rd in MLB)
2021: 0 DRS (35th)
2020: 8 DRS (1st)
2019: 5 DRS (16th)
2018: -6 DRS (72nd)
2017: 15 DRS (6th)
2016: -1 DRS (41st)
2015: -2 DRS (25th)

What am I supposed to do with that? Some years he’s among the best in baseball, some years he’s 73rd?

I guess I’ll say, generally, that for a guy with poor framing numbers and very little offensive value, it’s probably safe to assume that he’s actually a net-positive behind the plate in many of the ways that matter, regardless of what these advanced defensive metrics say for some years. If he wasn’t, I’m not really sure what his value would be. In any case, I do *remember* believing he was a good catcher in all the intangible ways, so I think we can just go with our gut on this one. Though that’s obviously NOT a ringing endorsement.

Offensively, Barnhart does not have much to offer:

His best offensive season was six years ago, and it was 10% worse than the league average hitter (any position), and just 1% better than the league-average catcher. Last season, however, was especially rough. Because while you can live with a catcher in the 75-90 wRC+ range when they add so much else behind the plate, Barnhart was nearly 40% worse than the league average hitter for the Tigers in 2022.

To put that another way, he was one of the 10 worst hitters in MLB last season (min. 300 PAs).

Barnhart is a switch hitter, however, which could help him fit nicely with Yan Gomes. Indeed, for his career, Barnhart has hit righties (86 wRC+) a lot better than lefties (54 wRC+), which fits well with Gomes, who goes the opposite way: 117 wRC+ vs. Lefties, 78 wRC+ for his career (84 wRC+ and 68 wRC+ last season with the Cubs).

So depending on how the *Cubs internal scouts and analysts* view Barnhart’s production behind the plate (that’s all that matters), I can see how Barnhart would fit as a low-cost backup plan. He’s not a very exciting option, and he doesn’t feel like the Cubs top target, but I guess it’s a reasonable path.

I didn’t get into the projected price tag for Barnhart, because in all likelihood it will not be a substantial deal. He will be on a major league team this season, he’s too much of a known-quantity in the league for anything less, but I can see him settling for something as short as a one-year deal, if necessary.

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Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami