How Detroit Tigers landed Tucker Barnhart, and what the trade means for other catchers

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers catcher Tucker Barnhart made sure to give a forewarning about his enthusiasm.

“I’m excited as heck to be a part of this,” Barnhart said Wednesday, just hours after the Tigers acquired him in trade. “I’m so excited about what the future is going to bring. … I’m very excited. I’m going to say that a lot.”

Indeed, Barnhart is pumped.

The 30-year-old, two-time Gold Glove winner came to the Tigers on Wednesday afternoon, as general manager Al Avila acquired him from the Cincinnati Reds for 24-year-old infield prospect Nick Quintana, then picked up his $7.5 million team option for 2022.

Avila, too, is pretty fired up.

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

INSTANT: Tigers acquire catcher Tucker Barnhart in trade with Cincinnati Reds

MORE ABOUT HIM: Tucker Barnhart is known for golden glove and packing a punch

How it happened

Traction for the trade began last week, just as the Tigers were wrapping up their front office meetings in Lakeland, Florida, home of the team’s spring training facility, to prepare for an offseason of building a “winning team going into 2022,” Avila said.

The high-ranking executives decided Barnhart was their top choice for a premier, defensive catcher. Knowing Cincinnati would likely decline Barnhart’s club option, thus making him a free agent, Avila phoned Reds general manager Nick Krall to discuss a trade.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t somewhat see this coming,” Barnhart said. “I’ve been on the other side of it, as well, where I’ve been the younger guy and there’s been a veteran, and it’s just worked itself out. It’s nobody’s fault. I’m not trying to push blame on anyone whatsoever. It’s just the way that this thing works.

“I prepared myself for every avenue that could happen, whether it was a trade, free agency or back in Cincinnati. I believe that everything happens for a reason. … I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad we didn’t go deep into the offseason as far as that stuff is concerned.”

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Barnhart felt “very uncertain” entering the offseason, in part because 25-year-old catcher Tyler Stephenson was ready to take his starting job with the Reds, but Avila didn’t hesitate to put the veteran catcher at that top of his organization’s to-do list this winter.

Avila said the leadership Barnhart displayed in Cincinnati was the main reason the Tigers pursued him aggressively.

“We wanted a catcher that can lead our young staff, and he’s 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. He had that experience and reputation of being a good leader for his pitching staff. They trusted him. That made him a priority for us.

“On the free-agent market, the catching market is tough every year, so we had our fingers crossed because Tucker really checked all the boxes of what we wanted as far as that leadership behind the plate.”

Getting acquainted 

Wondering if any Tigers pitchers reached out to Barnhart?

Well, Casey Mize was first to offer a warm welcome.

The 24-year-old is coming off a strong rookie season in which he posted a 3.71 ERA, 41 walks and 118 strikeouts over 150⅓ innings in 30 starts. He has the makings of a future ace and should make crucial developmental strides with Barnhart as his batterymate in 2022.

“Developing relationships from pitchers and catchers is absolutely paramount,” Barnhart said. “It allows you to hit the ground running in spring training and in the regular season. Just being able to, at the very least, connect and talk about things moving forward is very important.

“You get all the ice-breaker questions out of the way, and you’re able to talk about baseball and situations that we’re going to be in right away. Spring training, albeit long, still doesn’t feel like enough time for some things. Those relationships are one of those things. I’m excited to connect and learn my teammates right away.”

MORE ON MIZE: Casey Mize sets ‘foundation’ for ace status with rookie year he’s proud of

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Barnhart is best known for his game-calling and ability to block pitches. He earned his most recent Gold Glove in 2020, after picking up his first in 2017. Two seasons ago, Reds pitchers boasted a combined 3.89 ERA (eighth-best in MLB) and 9.9 WAR (second-best in MLB).

Accompanying Mize, the Tigers have two other pitchers fresh off their rookie years: 24-year-old Tarik Skubal and 23-year-old Matt Manning.

This year, Skubal set the franchise’s rookie record with 164 strikeouts, but he struggled to limit home runs, allowing 2.1 per nine innings. Although Manning is behind Mize and Skubal in his development, he showed growth along the way and finished with a 5.80 ERA in 18 starts.

“A lot of young, talented arms, no doubt about it,” Barnhart said. “From playing them last year, it was one of those things where, no matter who was out there, you never felt a sigh of relief, by any means. It was always a guy that was coming after you, that was going to make you work and put you on the defensive from pitch one.

“When I think about pitching and calling pitches, whenever you can put a hitter on the defensive from the get-go, you already have the upper hand. That’s the way it felt for me, personally, just by facing those guys and watching from the side. I’m excited to help build on what’s already been formed and be a part of it moving forward.”

What about Rogers, Dingler

The Tigers were prompted to act on Barnhart’s availability because of an injury to 26-year-old catcher Jake Rogers. He underwent Tommy John surgery in September and is expected to miss most, if not all, of the 2022 season.

But the Tigers won’t ditch Rogers from their long-term plans, considering he showcased superb defense and hit .239 with six homers, 17 RBIs, 11 walks and 46 strikeouts across 38 games in his second-career MLB opportunity this past season.

“We’re still very high on Jake,” Avila said. “I know he’s going to come back stronger and better than ever. That’s what our hope is. If we can get him back at some point at the latter part of next year, that’ll be great.”

THE OTHER CATCHER: Jake Rogers ‘pushing to be back next year’ after Tommy John surgery

Looking further down the road, the Tigers hope Barnhart bridges the gap to prospect Dillon Dinger, the team’s 2020 second-round pick out of Ohio State who has reached Double-A Erie. The Tigers believe Dingler, 23, is a key piece to future success, but he might need more time to develop than initially expected.

“I think having Tucker with (Eric) Haase, Jake and Dingler coming through the minor league ranks is really good,” Avila said. “It gives us a little bit of catching depth. It gives us experience. It gives us youth. We have a future and a little bit of depth. We’re very excited about that. The addition of Tucker is big.

“But Jake coming back next year at some point, it’s also going to be big for us as we move forward. That whole process hopefully comes together in a positive manner and puts us in a really strong position behind the plate.”

Dingler progressed quickly in High-A West Michigan this year, producing a .287 batting average, eight homers, 24 RBIs, 13 walks and 36 strikeouts over 32 games. His offense led to a promotion to Double-A Erie in June, alongside top prospect Spencer Torkelson. But Dingler struggled in Erie, hitting .202 with four homers, 20 RBIs, nine walks and 62 strikeouts over 50 games.

He finished his first season in the minor leagues with a .239 batting average in 85 games.

Haase set for No. 2 role

Avila said the Tigers will enter spring training with Barnhart as the team’s starting catcher and Haase as the backup, meaning fellow catchers Grayson Greiner and Dustin Garneau — if the Tigers tender them contracts in the salary arbitration process — are considered depth options in Triple-A Toledo.

As a 28-year-old rookie, Haase had a breakout performance in 2021. He hit .231 with 22 home runs, 61 RBIs, 26 walks and 119 strikeouts in 98 games. Swinging from the right side of the plate, he won AL Rookie of the Month in July and looks to build on his resume in 2022.

“It’s a great combination,” Avila said. “Tucker, hitting from the left side, is a great addition in combination with having Haase. We’re very excited about the potential, not only from the defensive side but from the offensive side. We’re very happy with that.”

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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