Coming into the season, the Reds made it clear the plan was to carry three catchers on the roster. This was done with the intention of limiting Tyler Stephenson’s time behind the plate in an attempt to keep him healthy and in the lineup the entire season. David Bell said before the season that the plan was for Stephenson to catch around 65 total games, and approximately 4 out of every 10 games. The Reds are now 19 games into the season so let’s take a look at Stephenson’s actual usage so far.
In those 19 games, Stephenson has made nine starts behind the plate, while starting two at first base and seven as the DH. If he were to keep the same pace for the rest of the season, Stephenson would catch approximately 77 games, DH approximately 60, and play first base approximately 17 times, for a total of 154 starts. That still tracks somewhat closely to Bell’s plan, though Stephenson has made a few more catching starts than initially expected.
Really, there are two questions. First, is Stephenson being used correctly? And second, does that usage justify having a third catcher on the roster?
Regarding Stephenson, it’s clear he’s not off to the greatest start with the bat. While he’s getting on base at a .368 clip, he has just three doubles and no home runs, leading to just an 85 wRC+. While an 85 wRC+ is actually solid for a regular catcher, it’s nowhere near the level you’d expect from a first baseman or DH. If his bat doesn’t improve back to near the 134 wRC+ level he was at last season, it’s fair to wonder if he even has value outside of catching. It’s also fair to wonder if moving around positionally has had a negative impact on his offense.
Even if the Reds do stick to the current plan of Stephenson catching around 50% of the games, there’s an argument to be made that it’s still not worth keeping a third catcher. In the 10 games Stephenson has not been behind the plate, Curt Casali has made six starts, while Luke Maile has made just four. Both have struggled offensively, with Casali posting a 35 wRC+ and Maile posting a -9 wRC+ in their limited time.
It’s worth wondering if the offense would improve if one of those catchers were starting approximately half of the games, rather than each catching around a quarter. While neither is proven to be a fantastic hitter, at the very least, Casali has been solid enough with the bat in recent years. Not being in the lineup enough to get into a rhythm could be making an impact on performance.
It’s also worth wondering if one of those bench spots could be better used on another position, rather than wasting two spots on players unlikely to provide value in a pinch hitting role. Carrying the extra catcher also can make it difficult for the Reds to manage an injury, as we saw earlier in the week when Casali was forced into action at third base.
Going forward, it’s as clear as ever that to maximize Stephenson’s value, he needs to be behind the plate as much as possible. In what’s likely to be a lost season, there’s certainly a case for trying to keep him healthy by limiting his catching time, but the Reds still may not be going about that in the correct way. While neither Casali nor Maile have options to be sent to the minors, the Reds would likely be best suited to move on from one of the two. Given Casali’s history working with this team and some of the young pitchers, he seems the most likely to stick around. That leaves Maile on the chopping block if the Reds opt to make a move.
Perhaps they wait until early June, when Maile can be traded without consent, to try to get a little value back in the form of a lottery ticket, PTBNL-type prospect. The Reds’ catching situation in 2022 proved that a decent backup catcher can be hard to come by, and Maile is still arguably a quality MLB-level backup. Given that, there’s likely a team out there in need of catching help that would be willing to give up something of at least a little value for Maile. Casali could potentially draw a bit more back in a trade, especially given his reasonable team option for next season, though that’s the exact reason why he also has more value to the current Reds team.
Regardless of how the Reds decide to resolve the catching logjam, it’s fairly clear that a move would be beneficial at this point. The risk, of course, is that if the Reds would move on from one of the backups and an injury would occur, they’d be in a similar situation to last year. Still, even in that case, the Reds are likely comfortable enough giving the majority of catching time to any of Stephenson, Casali, or Maile, should one of them get hurt. In case of an injury, someone like Chuckie Robinson could be called up and fill the role of sparingly-used backup well enough to get by. In the meantime, the added roster flexibility could help this team significantly.
Should the Reds Pursue Bumgarner?
On Thursday, the Arizona Diamondbacks announced that they had designated pitcher Madison Bumgarner for assignment. Bumgarner had struggled to a 10.26 ERA in four starts this season, while posting an 8.14 FIP and walking nearly a batter per inning.
Given the Reds’ struggles at the back end of the rotation, a former All Star pitcher might sound like an interesting option to pick up. Diving into Bumgarner’s numbers though, it’s clear he’s no longer the same pitcher he once was in San Francisco.
Since signing a 5-year, $85 million deal with Arizona prior to the 2020 season, Bumgarner has struggled, never posting an ERA, FIP, or xFIP below 4.60. His strikeout rate has fallen from the 25-28% range he posted in his prime to under 20%, though this is the first season where he’s seen a notable increase in walk rate.
Simply put, signing Bumgarner would likely give the Reds a worse version of 2022 Mike Minor. Bumgarner’s unlikeable personality also wouldn’t do him any favors, and could potentially cause more harm than good both inside the clubhouse and with the fan base. While continuing to give starts to the likes of Luis Cessa and Connor Overton is far from ideal, at this point, both seem to be better options than the aging Bumgarner.
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