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Austin Barnes & Yasmani Grandal battling for playing time behind the plate

Colorado Rockies v Los Angeles Dodgers
Austin Barnes, Yasmani Grandal and the plate will be something to watch this spring.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — One of the more intriguing storylines of spring training in Dodgers camp will be the battle for catching playing time between Yasmani Grandal and Austin Barnes.

Grandal started a career-high 113 games behind the plate in the regular season in 2017, but took a back seat in the postseason to Austin Barnes, the starter for 13 of the Dodgers’ 15 playoff contests.

“That was a decision we made because Austin was playing better,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I know Yasmani is coming here and expecting to win his job back. They both look at it as a competition, and that’s a good thing.”

There is still a chance I suppose that Grandal could be dealt before spring training. After all, if Barnes is viewed as the starter and the Dodgers need to clear space to make some last-minute addition, shedding the $7.9 million salary of their backup catcher could help them stay under the competitive balance tax threshold, especially if they don’t find much if any financial relief in trading Matt Kemp.

“There would be some hurdles for us to add any significant contracts at this point,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said on Saturday.

But for now let’s assume Grandal stays, which would be the best-case scenario for the Dodgers.

Barnes had a fantastic season in 2017, hitting .289/.408/.486 in 262 plate appearances and even played 76⅔ innings at second base. But there is a big difference between catching 55 games and 438⅓ innings — as Barnes did last year — and taking a starter’s load. The most Barnes has caught in one season is 685⅔ innings and 78 games, in 2015 in Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Grandal has averaged 106 starts and 946 innings behind the plate in his three seasons with the Dodgers, but has also faded in the second half in two of the three years. Before the All-Star break, Grandal as a Dodger has hit .256/.348/.477 compared to .212/.313/.411 afterward. Maybe a reduction in workload is warranted.

Grandal was ranked the fourth-best catcher in baseball by “The Shredder” on MLB Network this weekend, with Barnes close behind at sixth. Your mileage may vary on these rankings but there is no denying that catcher is a position of strength for the Dodgers.

Dodgers catchers combined to hit .259/.341/.480 with 39 doubles, 29 home runs and 71 walks in 2017, second at the position in the majors in doubles and walks, third in slugging percentage and OPS, fourth in on-base percentage, tied for fifth in home runs and third in WAR (4.8).

A platoon seems natural, with the switch-hitting Grandal having better numbers as a left-handed batter and the right-handed Barnes showing more power against left-handed pitchers.

Austin Barnes & Yasmani Grandal batting splits, 2015-17

Barnes vs. RHP 674 31 12 12.2% .292/.384/.432
Grandal vs. RHP 1,110 47 58 11.7% .234/.325/.464
Barnes vs. LHP 382 26 11 11.8% .293/.388/.485
Grandal vs. LHP 255 6 7 15.3% .248/.366/.374
Barnes’ numbers include both majors and minors.

The Dodgers averaged 46 games against left-handed starting pitchers the last three years, so a strict platoon would end up roughly at the 2017 split of 113 starts at catcher for Grandal and 49 for Barnes. But Barnes has shown he can hit right-handers as well, and a little extra rest now and then couldn’t hurt Grandal.

A more even split of time behind the plate would probably benefit both players. It would also be quite rare in Dodgers history. Since moving to Los Angeles the Dodgers have only had four seasons in which two catchers started 60 or more games behind the plate:

  • 1967: John Roseboro 90 starts, Jeff Torborg 63
  • 1974: Steve Yeager 92, Joe Ferguson 70
  • 1979: Yeager 88, Ferguson 62
  • 2000: Todd Hundley 82, Chad Kreuter 64

Barnes, Grandal and the rest of the catchers and pitchers report to spring training at Camelback Ranch on Tuesday, Feb. 13.