In early December the Cincinnati Reds non-tendered catcher Curt Casali. That move signaled to everyone that the organization was ready to hand the keys to the car over to Tyler Stephenson for at least some of the catching duties at the big league level. He’s going to be sharing that gig with two-time Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart in 2021. But how that time is split up hasn’t quite been determined yet.
“I‘m real confident that it’s going to work itself out,” said Reds manager David Bell. “Mainly, one of the reasons is that one’s a left-handed hitter and one’s a right-handed hitter. I think they’re in such different places in their career, which will make it easier too. You have one of them in Tyler, you need to get him experience and you need to get him in there, but at the same time there’s some benefits to easing him in. Then you have Tuck, he’s handled everything, he’s experienced everything at this point in his career.”
Typically a platoon situation works out well when you do have a lefty hitter and a righty hitter that are sharing the playing time. But with catchers you do tend to lean less on the bat and more on the defensive side of things. Tucker Barnhart gave up switch-hitting during the season last year, going to his natural left-handed only side. He’s been significantly better at the plate as a lefty in his career, posting a .729 OPS from the left side. From the right side of the plate, in about a quarter of the playing time, he’s posted just a .591 OPS.
There are a lot more right-handed pitchers in baseball than left-handed pitchers, and with the three batter minimum in the game today, that ratio could be changing even more as lefty relief specialist numbers could dwindle. That makes for a full “lefty vs righty” platoon situation a rather uneven situation. If that were strictly the way things would play out, Tyler Stephenson wouldn’t play very often as the opportunities to face left-handed pitchers simply wouldn’t be there.
“I think the easy way to look at it would be Tyler would play against the left handers,” said Bell. “But I know Tuck doesn’t want to accept that he’s not going to face left handers either. Like I said we’re going to get him at-bats here (spring training) against left handed pitching. So it’ll work itself out – they’re both going to play a lot. I typically don’t go into a situation where we try to match guys up with a starter. Mainly I think it’s important that both catchers try and develop that relationship with all of our pitchers. That’s happened over the last couple of years. Sometimes it just naturally happens where there’s just a natural chemistry between a pitcher and a catcher, and we need to be aware of that and acknowledge that. But not going into planning it that way.”
Outside of the new pitchers on the staff that came over during the offseason, Tucker Barnhart has plenty of experience catching everyone. He’s the second longest tenured Red behind Joey Votto, and he’s been the main catcher for nearly that entire time. For Stephenson, while he’s caught some of the guys in spring training in the past, as well as a little bit last season in the rookie year – he’s limited with the time he’s had with a lot of guys.
“The more time the better,” said Stephenson when asked about who he was looking forward to catching this spring. “I haven’t caught (Luis) Castillo yet, so that’s somebody I obviously want to get as much time as possible. My first start was with Sonny (Gray), but still, I want to catch him as many times as possible to get familiar with him. All the other guys, it’s the same thing, it’s not going to be a bad thing – the more time the better.”
David Bell was complimentary of what he saw from Tyler Stephenson last year. And he’s a believer in his upside, too, but he’s not ready to just hand the young prospect the full time job, either.
“He took big strides last year – defensively, offensively,” Bell said. “The sky is the limit, there is no limitations on him. He’s a big , strong, athletic, intelligent – he really has all of the tools. Like I said, the biggest thing is as a young player you’ve really got to believe in what you’re doing and it’s never a straight line, a straight path – there’s ups and downs, and he’s going to go through those and we know that. But with his attitude we know he’s ready to take on those challenges. Any setbacks, any mistakes or failures, he’s going to learn from it. And it’ll happen quick for him. He’s been a prospect and now it’s one day at a time, just getting him acclimated again in a different role. He’s going to be playing – obviously no guarantees going into the season, but he’s got an opportunity to not only make our team, but be a big part of it.”
It seems that David Bell is going to let the play dictate the way that the playing time is split up between Tyler Stephenson and Tucker Barnhart. There are some advantages – particularly the lefty/righty hitter thing – that he may consider at times, but it seems that Stephenson’s going to have to get on the field and show that he has what it takes to get more time on the field. The position is one where you just don’t see very many players put in 130 games, so there’s going to be some splitting of the playing time no matter what. But how far beyond 45/55 that goes is likely going to come down to the performance as the season goes along rather than there being a set plan heading into the year.