2021 Dodgers Season Preview: Will Smith, Austin Barnes, and the Catching Depth
Pitchers and catchers have officially reported to Camelback Ranch, marking the start of our favorite time of year.
As we look ahead into spring training and the start of the season, we will be previewing the projected roster, position by position. In this article, we’ll take a look at the catching depth within the organization and what we can expect from them heading into the 2021 regular season.
Starting Catcher: Will Smith
The Dodgers are perhaps the only team in baseball with two catchers who could make an argument to play every day. Out of the two, however, Will Smith is the future and should see the bulk of the playing time behind the plate.
It’s hard to believe that Smith has yet to play a full season in the majors, but it’s fun to look at how a full season could look based on his previous stats. Adjusting Smith’s totals over a 162-game season, he would be hitting 41 home runs with 119 RBI with only 132 strikeouts. These totals would rank first in each category among catchers that played at least 120 games in 2019.
A huge part of Smith’s offensive game is his ability to read the strike zone, which has led to an impressive 1.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his brief MLB career. At a position that usually doesn’t produce much offense, Will Smith is a luxury for a team already loaded with stars around the diamond. He could still improve defensively behind the plate in areas such as pitch framing and passed balls, but time and experience should help in both.
Primary Backup: Austin Barnes
While Smith possesses the offensive firepower to earn the starting job, few catchers are more beloved by their pitching staff than Austin Barnes. This stems from his ability to frame pitches better than almost anyone in the game (96th percentile), as well as his ability to call a game.
Barnes spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons as the backup catcher behind AJ Ellis, a longtime friend of Clayton Kershaw. Ellis was never an offensive threat, but he possessed many of the same skills now seen in Barnes. And just as AJ was a mentor to Austin, Barnes can now do the same for a young Will Smith.
While Barnes is not going to light the league on fire, he did increase his batting average to a modest .244 last season after batting .203 the year before. The 6-year veteran has a role on this team, even if it isn’t to start every game. The Dodgers rewarded him this past week with a 2-year $4.3 million contract to start perhaps once every few days at most.
Should the need ever come for him to start, however, Barnes will most certainly be ready.
Get you a man who can do both.
Austin Barnes played small ball and long ball in Game 3.
(MLB x @GoogleCloud) pic.twitter.com/l6MyE57HUb
— MLB (@MLB) October 24, 2020
Minor League Depth
- Keibert Ruiz
- Tim Federowicz
- Diego Cartaya
Even with Will Smith graduating to the majors full-time last season, the Dodgers still boast two top-ten catching prospects in their farm system. In Keibert Ruiz, they have one of the most well-rounded catchers at any level. He has an incredibly high ceiling on the defensive end, but his offense impressed the team just as much. In his brief appearance at the major league level last season, Ruiz flashed his power with a solo home run in his first major league at-bat.
First Major League at-bat, first homer for Keibert Ruiz. ? pic.twitter.com/TOrD55YNC7
— MLB (@MLB) August 16, 2020
The future could still be bright for the Venezuelan catcher, but with Smith cementing himself as the everyday catcher, the opportunities for Ruiz in 2021 will be limited to injury insurance.
Diego Cartaya might be even more impressive than Ruiz, especially considering that he is still just 19 years old. Cartaya has yet to experience a full minor league season, but he has impressed the team enough to include Ruiz’s name in trade rumors. While he may not crack the big league roster in 2021, he should benefit greatly from a full season of work in the minors.
Tim Federowicz may be a familiar name to die-hard Dodgers fans, but don’t feel bad if it doesn’t ring a bell. The veteran journeyman was the backup catcher in LA from 2011-14, but he was mostly limited to spot starts during his time here. If nothing else, Federowicz will offer a veteran mind to help the pitchers in the minors continue to develop. At best, he is a seasoned call-up option should injuries pop up at the catching position.
As with almost every other position, the Dodgers are set at catcher heading into the season. Between Smith and Barnes, the Dodgers are expected to produce 3.7 WAR at the position. This would have been the 4th best production in 2019, which was the last full season, and should rank in the top half of the league in 2021 as well.
If the Dodgers can get about 30 home runs and 80 RBI from this duo, it will be a successful season for LA. Players like Mookie Betts and Corey Seager will carry the load offensively, but having some steady production behind the plate will help this team get back to the World Series. And to commemorate the start of spring training, mark these words: Will Smith will shock the baseball world in 2021.
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