With Spring Training scheduled to begin this month, MLB.com will take an in-depth, position-by-position look at the Dodgers heading into the 2021 season. Next up: Catchers.
While the Dodgers will have to make some interesting decisions this spring, the catcher’s position won’t be among them.
The starter: Will Smith
While much of the attention falls on Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager — understandably so — Smith flew under the radar in 2020 with one of the best offensive seasons by any catcher in the Majors.
After hitting 15 home runs in just 54 games as a rookie in 2019, Smith was even more impressive during the ‘20 season. In 37 games, Smith hit eight home runs and finished with an 164 OPS+ (100 is league average).
His advanced metrics were even more impressive. Smith ranked in the 80th percentile in exit velocity with an average of 90.8. He also finished in the 88th percentile in hard-hit rate and finished in the 95th percentile in whiff rate, proving he can hit for power but also cut down on the swing-and-miss. Smith also crushed fastballs, finishing with six home runs and a .733 slugging percentage against heaters.
In a short period of time, Smith has shown he can rake. But the next step in his development will come on the defensive side of the game. Smith finished in the 6th percentile in catcher framing, an area where the Dodgers would like to see an improvement.
The backup: Austin Barnes
Barnes’ breakout season at the plate came in 2017, when he posted an .895 OPS in 102 games. Since then, Barnes hasn’t found nearly the same offensive production, but he remains one of the best backup catchers in the Majors, particularly because of his defense and ability to work with a pitching staff.
Smith is trying to improve behind the dish, and Barnes is the perfect player to learn from. Barnes finished in the 96th percentile in framing last season and finished with a 52.8% strike rate (48.3% was league average).
In the pipeline: Keibert Ruiz, Diego Cartaya
Ruiz, the Dodgers’ No. 2 prospect and top position player in the farm system according to MLB Pipeline, made his Major League debut last season and hit a home run in his first at-bat. The potential and talent are there for Ruiz; now it’s just a matter of finding opportunities for the 22-year-old.
It’s expected that Ruiz will start the season at Triple-A, unless there’s an injury to Barnes or Smith during Spring Training. Ruiz, who spent most of last season at the alternate training site, would benefit from consistent reps at the plate and behind the dish. While the Dodgers remain high on Ruiz, expect his name to come up in plenty of trade rumors, especially when the Dodgers are linked to a high-profiled player. But for now, the Dodgers are still hoping for big things out of him.
While Ruiz is the best catching prospect in the organization, Cartaya isn’t that far behind. The 19-year-old is the Dodgers’ No. 5 prospect and impressed everyone in the organization at the alternate training site last season. He is still a few years away from making an impact at the big league level, but the future’s bright for the Venezuelan catcher.