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A trade for a backup catcher could make sense for the Dodgers

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Austin Barnes has struggled mightily in 2018

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

One of my first articles for True Blue LA was on Austin Barnes and, despite the fact he wasn’t hitting, he was still providing value.

Fast forward two months and, well, Barnes still isn’t hitting. It’s really strange. His wRC+ is 69 and his power has all but disappeared (.047 ISO, .255 slugging). He’s still providing some value with his defense, but every time he steps to plate, there isn’t much excitement.

His soft-hit percentage has fallen since the May 25 article from 32.1 percent to 26.4 percent, but his current rate is seventh-worst in baseball among players with at least 170 plate appearances (tied with Yasiel Puig, coincidentally). We’re this far into the season and Barnes isn’t improving at the plate. At this point, it might be time to consider a new backup catcher.

No, that person won’t be Kyle Farmer. It seems the Dodgers don’t want him to catch much at the MLB level. Yasmani Grandal’s potential backup will have to come from outside the organization.

This is a tricky situation, though. There are a number of questions that need to be answered with a potential trade for a catcher:

  1. Can he hit left-handed pitching?
  2. Is he at least as good at framing as Barnes is?
  3. Grandal is a free agent after the season; could the new guy start in 2019?

When you have that criteria, the pool of catchers from which to choose is slim. Here are some of the catchers who have hit lefties well over the last two seasons (who could, realistically, be acquired):

  • Ryan Hanigan: 36 PA, 203 wRC+
  • Curt Casali: 24 PA, 181 wRC+
  • Robinson Chirinos: 149 PA, 150 wRC+
  • Nick Hundley: 173 wRC+, 142 wRC+
  • Wilson Ramos: 155 PA, 140 wRC+
  • Jett Bandy: 45 PA, 126 wRC+
  • Devin Mesoraco: 115 PA, 90 wRC+
  • Luke Maile: 94 PA, 84 wRC+

Just to name a few. Ramos is the best player on this list, but he’d probably want to start wherever he were traded, so we can cross him off. Hanigan and Casali (and Bandy) have nice numbers, but there’s obviously sample size issues here. Hundley is on the Giants and, while he’d make sense offensively, he’s a terrible framer (97th out of 99 ranked catchers by adjusted framing runs above average, according to Baseball Prospectus).

Chirinos is interesting, even if Matt Kemp might disagree. He hits lefties, but he’s like Hundley in the sense that he’s not a great framer (86th out of 99). Mesoraco isn’t hitting lefties particularly well and isn’t great at framing (92nd out of 99), so he’s probably out, too.

That leaves a guy like Maile. His numbers over the last two years against left-handed pitching aren’t great, but he’s been much better this season: .273/.353/.523 with a 136 wRC+. Not only that, he’s ranked as the sixth-best framer (8.0 FRAA_ADJ) in baseball this season — four spots behind Grandal and four spots ahead of Barnes (5.9 FRAA_ADJ). Is that a big enough upgrade to justify a trade for Maile and demoting Barnes to Triple-A? Maybe. Perhaps Barnes could benefit from some time at Oklahoma City to see if he can get right. Having Maile (under team control through the 2022 season) could make that a lot easier.

Maile was waived by the Rays back in April and he didn’t make it far through the process before the Blue Jays claimed him. They also have old friend Russell Martin, the fifth-best framer in baseball. They aren’t going anywhere this season, so acquiring Maile should come at a minimal cost.

This might also be necessary because Will Smith probably won’t be ready for full-time action at the beginning of 2019, thanks to a broken hand suffered last season. The Dodgers might need coverage in case they don’t retain Grandal after the season. If Farmer isn’t in the plans (and he doesn’t appear to be), a combination of Barnes/Maile could be good enough — and elite, defensively — until Smith (and eventually Keibert Ruiz) is (are) ready.

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This exercise has shown just how thin quality catching is in baseball. The fact that the Dodgers have baseball’s deepest catching corps is highly underrated. When looking at potential trades ahead of Tuesday’s deadline, the Dodgers just aren’t going give away a guy like Smith, Ruiz or even Connor Wong.

Barnes is obviously fighting it this season. Going to a less stressful environment like Oklahoma City could have good long-term benefits, especially if the front office is expecting Barnes to take over the starting catcher’s spot next season.

At this rate, the Dodgers will give Grandal the qualifying offer (which was $17.4 million last season and should be upwards of $18 million for 2019) and maybe hope he accepts it. If not, having a rejuvinated/fixed Barnes paired with solid veteran in Maile could be OK for 2019. Having Maile for the rest of 2018 could also make some sense.