Dunedin, Fla. — If Tigers general manager Al Avila is mulling giving Tucker Barnhart a contract extension — as a tweet from MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi intimated Thursday — it’s news to him. Happy news, for sure, but it’s the first he’s heard about it.
“No, no discussions about that,” Barnhart said back in Lakeland Thursday morning. “But I love it here, I do. I love AJ (Hinch, manager). I love this group of guys. For me, it’s a great situation. It’s clear to me they value what I bring to the table.
“Hopefully it’s not a one-year thing. I’d like to be here for a while.”
The Tigers acquired Barnhart, 31-year-old switch-hitting catcher, in a trade from the Reds this winter and picked up his $7.5 million player option for 2022. Given the Tigers’ recent history of not extending players, plus the presence of two young catchers on the rise (Jake Rogers, who will miss the bulk of this season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Dillon Dingler, the club’s No. 4-ranked prospect), it would be a mild surprise if the Tigers extended him beyond this year.
Barnhart, though, is more than willing to be surprised.
“If something happens during the season, great,” he said. “If they wait until the offseason, great. If it’s done before Opening Day, it’d be a shock to me at this point, but it would be great.”
Barnhart, who caught a veteran-laden staff in Cincinnati the last couple of years, has been taking a crash course in a condensed spring trying to learn the ways and means of a mostly young starting rotation. And by all accounts, the transition has been seamless.
“It’s definitely a developing staff,” Barnhart said. “There’s no doubt about that. But I haven’t been around them long enough to put any labels on anything. You’re watching guys come into their own and learning what makes them right and what makes them good at this level.
“It’s our job as catchers and as a staff to help them out and just stay on it. You want them to realize, hey, what you are good at, let’s try to be great at it.”
By now, he’s caught all five starters in at least one spring game, though with Casey Mize, it was a low-adrenaline backfields game against minor league hitters. He was asked for a thumbnail initial impression of each:
►Eduardo Rodriguez: “From an overall repertoire standpoint, Eduardo’s fastball command has really stuck out to me. Just his ability to put a fastball wherever he wants. It’s special.”
►Tarik Skubal: “I’ve caught him the most, just the way the schedule went. His stuff is electric. I’ve really tried to hammer home the fact that he can pitch over the heart of the plate and overpower people. Obviously, there are certain hitters you can’t do that to as much as others. But there are a lot of guys he very well can do that with.”
►Matt Manning: “I caught him once. I felt like we were dealing with a little mechanical thing. But we talked about that and it was an easy fix. His fastball was electric and he showed both breaking balls, which were good at times. And the changeup was there.”
►Tyler Alexander: “He’s very fun to catch, very good pace. Throws lots of strikes and he’s not afraid to throw any pitch at any time.”
►Mize: “It’s hard to quantify based on the one low-adrenaline start. But I’ve caught his sides and in live batting practice. His fastball and both his breaking balls are really good. He slider is his pitch to get him back into counts. And the splitter, to me, is nasty. Thankfully I know when it’s coming, it makes it a little easier to catch.”
As far as the differences in demeanor and how they react to real stress during an outing, Barnhart said to get back to him on that in a couple of months after he’s caught them on the big stage for a while.
“It’s been a blast,” he said. “We’ve had some really good conversations as far as how we want to attack people during the season. We just need to keep building off what we’re doing.”
This is not what Tigers center fielder Derek Hill needed. Not ever, really, but especially not now.
He came out of the game in Clearwater Wednesday with what was described as cramping in his hamstrings. He said he was fine after the game, but it was sore Thursday morning and he was not with the team in Dunedin.
“We’re going to have to wait a couple of days and see if it’s an injury,” Hinch said.
Lefty reliever Andrew Chafin is in the same boat. He was a late scratch Wednesday after he complained of tightness in his groin.
“We’re kind of caught in a gray area where we have to wait a couple of days before we can proceed,” Hinch said. “And we’re heading into the last week (of camp). It’s not ideal but it’s our reality.”
It’s less ideal for Hill because, unlike Chafin, he’s fighting for a roster spot. He and Victor Reyes are presumed to be neck and neck for the final outfield job. Though that is not set in stone.
“Another 48 hours and I will have a little more information,” Hinch said of the injuries. “Just because we’re starting that downhill sprint to the end of camp, I don’t want to concede anything yet. I would love our injury report to be player-free.”
Chafin, who signed late and has only two spring appearances under his belt, told Hinch Thursday he was feeling better. Still, there is at least some worry that he may not be ready to start the season.
“Until we get more information, it’s hard to speculate,” Hinch said. “I know he was optimistic, which is a first good step. I will be curbing my enthusiasm until he’s actually back on the mound.”
Castro’s new home
Tigers utility man Harold Castro didn’t play winter ball this year. For a very significant reason.
“I was working on my papers to be a resident here,” he said.
Castro applied for and was granted U.S. citizenship and he’s brought his wife, two children, mother and father from Venezuela to live at his home in Kissimmee, Florida.
“I still have two sisters back in Venezuela,” he said. “They will be here soon.”
Castro came into the game Thursday hitting .368 and he’s played every infield position this spring. But as usual, he’s not taking his roster spot for granted.
“I never feel like I have security on this team,” he said. “Always I’ve got to come do my job and work hard to be here. It’s the same mindset every year — come here, compete and do my best. I don’t want to feel comfortable or like I have a job already without doing anything.”