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Tucker Barnhart trade highlights two teams moving in opposite directions

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Circumstances aligned to make this a necessary, if slightly pricey, move for the Detroit Tigers.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As the Detroit Tigers 2021 season came to an end, general manager Al Avila made it plain that the club was going to try and contend for a playoff spot next season. Wednesday’s trade for catcher Cincinnati Reds’ catcher Tucker Barnhart was a quick strike that signaled to any lingering doubters that this isn’t going to be another lukewarm offseason. Arguably, Barnhart was the single player they needed most this offseason, and they immediately did what it took to land him.

The deal involved the sum of $7.5M and a decent but unremarkable third base prospect in Nick Quintana. Not exactly earth shaking in scale. Yet the immediacy of the deal, and the clear ramifications for both clubs, sent serious ripples through the baseball world on the first day of the offseason.

Despite the fact that the Reds have a pretty good starting catcher in Tyler Stephenson, the trade is being taken as another sign that Reds’ fans are about to go through some things this offseason. On Thursday, Nick Castellanos announced that he would opt out of his deal and test free agency. Veterans like Mike Moustakas and particularly Eugenio Suarez struggled mightily this year, while 2022 will be Joey Votto’s age 39 season. Starting pitcher Wade Miley is due $10M in the final year of his deal and could also choose to opt out in the coming days. There’s a difficult road ahead for Cincinnati.

Ownership and the front office made an attempt at contending the past two seasons and came up empty. It would surprise no one if they took a step back for a year or two, but the argument that they were just trimming payroll here is pretty clear as Quintana won’t be helping them at the major league level soon, if ever. Perhaps that money is re-invested and they make some win-now moves this offseason, but right now spirits in Cincinnati are low.

As for the Tigers, they really needed Tucker Barnhart in particular and the front office is rightfully getting credit for zeroing in on him and getting it done right away. There isn’t a better defensive catcher available in free agency, and of the few that might be serviceable, there are no left-handed hitters. The Tigers have major needs at shortstop and in the pitching staff, but no single player who was conveniently available fit a need for them as neatly as Barnhart does at the catcher position. The decisiveness shown here is only amplifying the sense that the Tigers aren’t screwing around here and really plan a substantial push this offseason.

While Barnhart’s left-handed stick is a nice complement, the real key here is Barnhart’s reputation for handling a pitching staff and his grades in the other catcherly arts. Eric Haase isn’t on Barnhart’s level as a game-caller, receiver, or thrower. He is, however, a nice backup with some positional versatility who can hold his own behind the plate and packs a powerful bat, if only against left-handed pitching. It’s a pretty solid pairing.

The Tigers were forthright in their postseason comments that the loss of Jake Rogers was a major blow to their plans, so it’s no surprise that Barnhart had to be their first target off the offseason. The surprise is that they got it done, and got it done immediately. Barnhart upgrades the position defensively and gives the club a solid enough offensive platoon at the position—by modern catcher standards—to avoid any gaping hole in the lineup in 2022.

In 2021, Barnhart was worth either 0.2 WAR in Baseball Reference’s calculation, or 1.2 WAR in FanGraphs’ calculation. The debate is largely over the value of his offensive production. So we’ll split the difference and say 0.7 WAR in 116 games. On the open market, he may have commanded around $5.5M coming off a career best year by several measures. The Tigers will pay two million more than that, but scarcity at the position and the desirability of Barnhart’s ability to run a game make him worth the premium.

Barnhart ranked seventh best among qualified catchers in receiving for the 2021 season. He’s particularly good on the inside and outside edges, as opposed to up and down where his grades are roughly average. He had only three passed balls in 846 innings caught last year. Per FanGraphs, he was 11th overall defensively among catchers with 81 games. A.J. Hinch and Chris Fetter are both big believers in having a strong defensive catcher who can run the game, steal strikes and block well, while implementing sequences to get balls hit predictably to shifted defensive alignments. Barnhart should fit the bill nicely. Just don’t expect anything but decent offensive production.

Barnhart is a former switch hitter who finally had to throw in the towel. Now he bats lefty full-time and almost exclusively hits against right-handed pitching. He draws his share of walks and typically posts a league average on base percentage, but it’s probably foolish to hope for more. Barnhart just doesn’t hit for much power, and as a left-handed pull hitter, is pretty shiftable. His saving grace is that he sprays a lot of line drives, and on the more spacious lawns of Comerica Park he might find the grass a bit more than in Great American Ballpark.

Nick Quintana

Of course, Barnhart’s salary wasn’t the only cost involved in the transaction. The Tigers sent their second round pick from the 2019 draft to the Reds in the deal. Quintana struggled badly post-draft and then like everyone else, found himself waiting out 2020 for a chance to get back on the field. His 2021 season showed some promise, as he drastically improved his strikeout to walk numbers. However, his pull heavy approach still didn’t generate much hard contact for a good college player at A-ball and now two years removed from college. As a result he hit just .196 despite a pretty reasonable strikeout rate of 21 percent.

Quintana is a good third baseman, so he’s not without some tools. But he really has stalled out offensively and it’s possible a fresh start is the best thing for him as well. The Tigers have a host of interesting, and younger, third base candidates at the A-ball levels and needed the recently turned 24-year-old to look convincingly like a player ready for the jump to Double-A. Quintana couldn’t make that happen. So sending him to the Reds is a way of re-couping some of the initial investment. There’s a cost here, in addition to taking on Barnhart’s salary, but this is highly unlikely to come back and bite the Tigers. Despite his selection high in the second round, Quintana is little more than a lottery ticket right now.

A good start to the offseason

While the Tigers have plenty of options available to add pitching and find a good shortstop, the catching market is very thin. Jumping on Barnhart, even overpaying a little to do so, was a move that had to happen to keep the Tigers’ offseason plans intact. That they got it done so quickly is another good sign that the Tigers’ intentions are real and that they have a plan to turn themselves into at least a viable threat to contend in 2022.