CINCINNATI -- The changing of the guard at Reds catcher was gradual. Devin Mesoraco was the main guy going into the 2014-16 seasons. Tucker Barnhart was the backup going into '16, and the two were expected to split time entering 2017.
Mesoraco's inability to stay healthy and Barnhart's rise to success has called for a role reversal. Going into Spring Training 2018, Barnhart will be the primary catcher with Mesoraco backing up.
"Tucker's going to get the lion's share of the playing time now; he's earned that," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "But I would like to think that Devin can help us in any number of ways."
Price felt those ways included Mesoraco catching a couple of times per week and pinch-hitting in the later innings. It did not include giving Mesoraco opportunities at other positions in the field.
Mesoraco is entering the final season of a four-year, $28 million contract he signed after his All-Star 2014 season when he slugged 25 home runs with 80 RBIs. In the past three seasons, the 29-year-old has been limited to 95 games as he needed to have labrum tears in both hips and his left shoulder repaired. Last season, he endured three stints on the disabled list and didn't play after Aug. 14 because of a fractured left foot.
In 56 games, Mesoraco batted .213/.321/.390 with six home runs and 14 RBIs.
"The time that he's missed has been important time because there's just no way, especially in that position, to stay on top of your game when he missed the bulk of the last three seasons to the DL," Price said. "So the first thing I would like to see, and really need to see, is him continue to improve … he was really becoming I thought one of the better upper-echelon defensive players in 2014 when he was a regular catcher."
While Mesoraco will make $13 million in the upcoming season, Barnhart will be starting a new four-year, $16 million contract signed in September that will pay him $4 million in '18.
Barnhart's respected defense earned him the National League Gold Glove Award at catcher. He also enjoyed a career year as a hitter while slashing .270/.347/.403 with seven homers and 44 RBIs in 121 games.
Price ruled out carrying three catchers in the season, which means he will have to be extra selective when he uses Mesoraco to pinch-hit. If something happens to Barnhart, the Reds could be stuck finishing a game without an experienced catcher.
"It's a lot easier later in the game than early in the game," Price said. "If something happens and you pinch-hit with your guy in the fourth inning, you're going with a guy that is going to have to handle velocity and movement for four or five or six innings in a game, and that can pose as another safety concern for me, to put in good conscience putting somebody that's not really a catcher behind the plate in a big league game.
"I think Devin, when he's not starting, can take some of those premium late-game at-bats against velocity and experienced pitching, and we can feel that we have a competitive opportunity to have a productive at-bat."