Who could back up Stephenson at catcher?

November 22nd, 2022

This story was excerpted from Mark Sheldon's Reds Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CINCINNATI -- As the Reds endured the 100-loss 2022 season with a reduced budget, they learned it’s very hard to play without quality catching depth.

Injuries, including a concussion and a broken right clavicle, limited primary catcher Tyler Stephenson to 50 games. The club traded Tucker Barnhart to the Tigers last offseason to save $7.5 million on his club option (and its buyout) and went into the season with Aramis Garcia as Stephenson’s backup. A finger injury put Garcia out for the final 78 games.

For a younger pitching staff -- namely starters Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo and Graham Ashcraft -- to have consistent outings, strong catching depth is critical.

Overall, seven catchers were needed to get through last season: Stephenson, Garcia, Mark Kolozsvary, Chris Okey, Michael Papierski, Austin Romine and Chuckie Robinson. This offseason, only Stephenson remains on the 40-man roster.

Offensively, Cincinnati’s catchers ranked 24th in the Major Leagues with a .580 OPS. Defensively and in working with the pitchers, there were mixed results.

Stephenson is arguably the Reds’ best hitter -- he batted .319 with an .854 OPS and six home runs in 2022 -- but can he stay healthy? The head injury issue is of particular concern, but there are no plans to move the 26-year-old to first base or designated hitter full-time.

Incidentally, Stephenson shared on Twitter last week that he has resumed baseball activities.

The Reds’ budget might be tight once again, but general manager Nick Krall noted there was some flexibility. Adding a decent backup catcher isn’t going to wow the fans, but it sure would help the pitchers.

Let’s take a look at some of the catchers on the market.

Tucker Barnhart, 31: A two-time Gold Glove winner and clubhouse leader for the Reds from 2014-21, Barnhart fits the bill perfectly on the defensive side. But he had a rough season offensively in Detroit, batting .221 with a .554 OPS -- well below his .245 career average and .680 career OPS. Barnhart is also an Indianapolis-area native and loved his time in Cincinnati.

Curt Casali, 34: Another well-regarded former Red who backed up Barnhart from 2018-20, Casali was loved by the pitchers he worked with just as much. He had some right-handed pop as a hitter, but he didn’t fare as well last season with the Giants and Mariners.

Austin Hedges, 30: A stronger defensive catcher worth 1.2 dWAR per Baseball-Reference last season with the Guardians, Hedges doesn’t bring as much as a hitter. He hit .163 with a .489 OPS and seven homers in 2022.

Gary Sánchez, 29: Sánchez, who turns 30 next month, has plenty of power and hit 16 homers during a lackluster season with the Twins, batting .205 with a .659 OPS. A two-time All-Star with the Yankees who hit 34 homers in 2019, Sánchez is known for being a defensive liability.

Omar Narváez, 30: A top-end pitch framer with strong defense, Narváez was an All-Star with the Brewers in 2021, when he hit 11 homers with a .743 OPS in 123 games. He went through a down ‘22 season and batted only .206 with a .597 OPS and four homers in 84 games.

Austin Romine, 34: Greene, Lodolo and Ashcraft often raved about working with Romine last season and how well he directed them through games. The issue with bringing him back would be lack of offense. After being picked up at the Trade Deadline from the Cardinals, Romine hit .147 with a .436 OPS and three homers in his 37 games with Cincinnati. He has a .616 career OPS.