Barnhart 'couldn't be happier' to join Tigers

Veteran catcher traded to Detroit from Reds for unranked 3B prospect

November 3rd, 2021

DETROIT -- For the second straight year, the Tigers filled a major need hours after the offseason began. By acquiring catcher from the Reds, they have also made an early statement about what they want to do this offseason.

One year after the Tigers landed manager A.J. Hinch hours after the World Series ended, they have given him the catcher he needed for 2022, filling one of their key holes before free agency begins. Detroit sent unranked third-base prospect Nick Quintana to Cincinnati for Barnhart, a two-time National League Gold Glove Award winner.

“Coming into this offseason, we knew that catcher was a priority position for us,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said in a statement announcing the trade. “During our strategy meetings over the last couple of weeks in Lakeland with my front office staff, Tucker’s name came up many times as an attractive option for our ballclub as someone who is a real plus defender, knows how to lead a pitching staff and is a solid contributor from the batter’s box. After feeling interest from the Reds to make a deal, we moved quickly to make it happen and kick off our offseason transactions.”

The end of the World Series on Tuesday started the countdown for the Reds, who had five days from that date to decide whether to exercise a $7.5 million option on Barnhart as part of the four-year contract he had signed early in his career. With 2015 first-round MLB Draft pick Tyler Stephenson looming as the Reds’ catcher of the future, Cincinnati made the move to trade Barnhart rather than let him hit free agency.

“It is bittersweet,” Barnhart said on a video conference with reporters Wednesday afternoon, “but it is one of those things where, in my opinion, for me professionally and for my family personally, this is a wonderful thing for us. And I think the best version of Tucker Barnhart on the baseball field is now and in the future. So I’m excited as heck to be a part of this organization, and I really look forward to building on what they’ve built here so far.”

The Tigers had been talking about Barnhart since the season ended, having identified him as a top target in a thin catching market. With expected to miss most of next season following Tommy John surgery and having struggled down the stretch as an everyday catcher, the Tigers wanted to solidify the position heading into next year with a young pitching staff to guide.

“We actually identified Tucker as one of our top priorities, if not the top priority,” Avila said. “And we knew that in order to get a catcher of this quality, we were probably going to have to do a trade.”

The Tigers can now pick up his contract option by Sunday, or try to sign him to an extension.

The 30-year-old Barnhart batted .247/.317/.368 in 388 plate appearances this past season, starting 97 games at catcher for the Reds. Those numbers aren’t far off his career marks, with an 83 OPS+ over eight seasons (100 OPS+ is average). As a left-handed hitter, he has a .256 career average and .722 OPS off right-handed pitching, including six of his seven home runs in 2021.

“Tucker hitting from the left side is a great addition," Avila said. "The combination of him and Haase, we’re very excited about the potential, not only from the defensive side, but the offensive side, too.”

The strength of Barnhart’s game is his defense and pitch-calling. He won the Gold Glove at catcher in 2017 and '20, and led all NL players in defensive bWAR (3.1) in 2017. He’s also a skilled pitch presenter; his five Runs from Extra Strikes ranked seventh-best among MLB catchers this past season, according to Statcast, including a strong ability to coax strike calls on either side of the plate. By contrast, no Tigers catcher finished in positive territory in the category.

“We wanted a catcher who can lead our young stuff, and he has proven that he can do that,” Avila said. “He calls a good game, but it’s not just the game-calling, it’s the relationship with the pitchers.”

By changing teams now rather than potentially waiting through free agency, Barnhart has time to learn Detroit’s young pitchers before Spring Training.

“I think developing relationships [between] pitchers and catchers is absolutely paramount,” Barnhart said. “I think it allows you to hit the ground running in Spring Training, in the regular season. I heard from  already; he welcomed me. Just being able at the very least to say hello, talk about things moving forward, is very important because it puts you in that situation where you get all the icebreaker-type things out of the way and you’re able to talk about baseball and situations that we’re going to be in during the season right away.”

After several seasons of trading veterans for prospects as part of their rebuild, the Tigers’ deal for Barnhart is their first significant prospect-for-veteran trade since the 2015-16 offseason, when they acquired reliever Justin Wilson from the Yankees for Chad Green and Luis Cessa.

Quintana was the Tigers’ 2019 second-round Draft pick after a standout season at third base at the University of Arizona, but he never progressed beyond the Low-A level, thanks in part to injuries. The 24-year-old batted .190/.299/.308 in 635 Minor League plate appearances, and he had been passed up in Detroit's system by Andre Lipcius -- a third-rounder in the same Draft -- and 2020 fifth-rounder Colt Keith.