Barnhart, Cubs agree to 2-year deal

December 29th, 2022

CHICAGO -- The anticipated departure of All-Star catcher Willson Contreras this offseason forced the Cubs to rethink their approach to that aspect of their roster. It became increasingly clear that Chicago's plan was more of a defense-first strategy.

On Thursday, the Cubs announced a two-year deal with free-agent catcher Tucker Barnhart, who boasts a pair of Gold Glove Awards on his resume. The contract is worth $6.5 million guaranteed, and the 2024 season is included via a player option, according to a source.

Barnhart offers a lefty bat to pair with veteran catcher Yan Gomes, who joined the Cubs last season and quickly won over Chicago's pitchers. Contreras and Gomes formed a strong tandem, but the chances of them continuing on together were officially erased when Contreras inked a five-year, $85.5 million deal with the Cardinals.

The Cubs nearly dealt Contreras at the Trade Deadline last year -- a one-for-one deal for Houston pitcher José Urquidy fell apart at the last minute, sources confirmed -- so the team was fully prepared for his exit this offseason. That helped Chicago map out its approach to the position.

"It's a two-way position," Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at the GM Meetings in November. "Obviously, you want guys that can hit, but it's a run-prevention position. So much of it is game-calling, preparation, feeling strongly about that everything that pitchers do is a 'we' thing. It's about that teamwork and that collaboration."

Losing Contreras' offensive production (.815 OPS and 128 OPS+ in 2022) hurts, but the Cubs can hope to make up some of that via the free-agent signings of center fielder Cody Bellinger and Dansby Swanson. Chicago is surely not done exploring ways to add a bat, either.

Free-agent options Christian Vázquez (three-year, $30 million deal with the Twins) and Omar Narváez (two-year, $15 million deal with the Mets) came off the board, as did Luke Maile (Reds), Mike Zunino (Guardians) and Austin Hedges (Pirates) via one-year deals. Sean Murphy looked like a potential fit, but the A's traded him to the Braves -- in a three-team deal that, in turn, shipped catcher William Contreras, Willson's younger brother, to the rival Brewers.

The Cubs found their fit in Barnhart, who is more than familiar with the club after suiting up for the Reds across the 2014-21 seasons. He took home Gold Glove Awards in '17 and '20, with his best offensive season coming in '17, when he hit .270 with a .750 OPS and 95 OPS+ for Cincinnati.

Barnhart's defensive numbers took a hit in '22 (-8 defensive runs saved and -2.3 framing runs), but that was a departure from his track record. And while his offensive splits were relatively even last season, he has a history of performing better against righties (.705 OPS) than lefties (.580 OPS) for his career.

Gomes, 35, has built a strong reputation over his 11 MLB seasons for working with pitchers, adjusting in-game and controlling the running game. Last season, the veteran was a much better hitter in the second half (.743 OPS) than in the first (.542 OPS), as his familiarity and comfort with the pitchers increased.

In his introductory Zoom session with media, new Cubs starter Jameson Taillon specifically mentioned Gomes while discussing the season ahead.

"With Bellinger and Dansby coming on board, it seems like they're gonna take a big step forward defensively," Taillon said. "That excited me, and I've heard really, really great things about working with Yan Gomes from the catching side. We talked about all of that."

From here, the Cubs will continue to look to build up their depth around the roster.

"We're trying to figure out around the edges, what are the different places that maybe we can continue to add?" Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins said recently. "That's something that we'll be looking at in terms of our bullpen, and then thinking about just, 'You can never have enough arms,' and thinking about the different major positions in the team up the middle."