The Dodgers’ trade of Carlos Ruiz to the Mariners — finalized on Monday — netted them a left-handed pitching depth in Vidal Nuno, but perhaps most importantly the deal likely opened up a chance for Austin Barnes to have a more permanent role on the major league roster.
Barnes was part of the return from the Marlins in the Dee Gordon trade two offseasons ago, and has put together a pair of solid years in Triple-A Oklahoma City.
He hit .315/.389/.479 in Triple-A in 2015, and .295/.380/.443 in 2016. Barnes stole 30 bases in 35 attempts in the minors the last two years, including 18 for 21 in 2016.
Barnes is just 11-for-61 (.180) in his brief major league stints over the last two years, but putting aside for a moment how difficult it is to measure performance with such up-and-down movement, there were positives as well, with 11 walks in 74 plate appearances and a .315 OBP.
It’s understandable that the Dodgers are ready for Barnes, who turns 27 in December, to get an extended major league look.
His role will be backup catcher, but in addition to his speed, the athletic Barnes provides another benefit on the roster, in that he can play second base and third base in a pinch as well.
Versatility was the key word that got Barnes placed on the NLDS roster in October, though in this case as the third catcher instead of the second.
“He can pinch hit right-handed, and play multiple positions,” manager Dave Roberts said at the time. “He has a lot of versatility.”
"His versatility certainly plays into it,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “He's got some foot speed relative to catchers.”
That’s not to discount Barnes’ ability behind the plate, where he has been one of the best pitch framers in the game the last two years. In 2016, Barnes ranked fifth in the majors and minors combined in adjusted fielding runs above average (+18.7 runs) behind the plate, per Baseball Prospectus.
Dodgers starting catcher Yasmani Grandal ranked second, behind only Buster Posey.
While Barnes is going to be 27 next year, and with two full spring training camps he is more familiar with the major league team than most relative newcomers (Barnes won’t be a rookie, having exhausted his rookie status through service time in 2016), the Dodgers clubhouse under Roberts and his coaching staff have made it easier to integrate new players to the team.
"A great byproduct of the cultural change and shift that we saw on the major league side with Doc and his coaches was to be able to provide that soft landing spot,” Friedman said in October. “That environment where guys could come up and thrive and not be afraid to compete, and were put in positions to succeed.
“It could not have worked out any better this year, and I think that's a cultural environment that's going to continue and grow off of itself and be furthered. That part is critical. If you don't have that environmental piece, it's really difficult on a contending team to bring young players up and expect to continue to contend and get the most out of them.”