The San Francisco Giants will likely be relying on Austin Wynns and Joey Bart to handle the catching position in 2023 and playing time distribution is a very practical question moving forward. While attempting to sign Gary Sanchez was not initially out of the question, President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi has recently said he didn’t anticipate signing any other catchers to Major League deals this winter. He also mentions that Wynns seems well-positioned to be Bart’s primary backup during the regular season, and while that is a good guess, it ultimately remains to be seen who will get the playing time.
What Factors Will Determine Who Gets the Majority of the Playing Time Between the Giants Catchers?
Both Wynns and Bart bat right-handed, so there need not be a platoon consideration in the distribution of playing time. Given, catchers are rarely platooned anyway, probably on account of the uniquely complex factors of the position. It is difficult to find two opposite-handed catchers that are comparable both defensively and in overall offensive skill.
With the designated hitter rule in place, backup catchers are more likely to sit on the bench for an entire game without playing. Since the pitcher’s spot does not come up in the lineup, the need for pinch hitters is drastically reduced. While this does affect backup players at every position to an extent, catchers are among the least defensively versatile, and will not often enter a game at a position other than their primary one.
Also, the typical utility bench players usually can’t handle the unique nature of the catcher position, and the backup catcher is often the only player that could take over behind the plate in the emergency of an injury to the starter. Thus, even in the days when pinch hitters were needed for the pitcher’s spot in the National League, there was a drawback to sending the backup catcher to the plate to pinch hit.
However, backup catchers get their fair share of starts, since the demands of the position require more rest than those of any other position besides pitcher.
All of that said, let’s look at the factors that are most likely to influence the distribution of playing time at catcher for the Giants. It’s clear that Bart is by far the leading candidate. After all, he is the Giants long-time hotshot prospect, while Wynns was designated for assignment to clear a roster spot (although he is still likely to end up on the big league roster). But the complete picture can’t be seen unless as much information as possible is considered.
1. Which Giants Catcher Will Perform Better in Spring Training?
Despite the unacceptable off-season results, the Giants must position themselves as possible contenders in 2023. At this point, they would lose significant fan support if they didn’t. Contending means looking for productivity, which in turn means leaning on the best players – the ones likely to be immediately productive. So the Giants should keep an open mind on their catching options and make nothing definite until the catchers are evaluated in spring training.
In the event that Wynns vastly outperforms Bart, the Giants must prioritize productivity and make sure that Wynns sees playing time. If they are about equal, however, the most favorable option will be to give Bart the majority of the playing time, because of his status as a potential future superstar. A $7 million draft pick is one that must come through. If Bart outperforms Wynns, there will of course be no question.
In 2021, Curt Casali was the Giants backup catcher for Buster Posey. After Posey’s retirement at the end of the season, there was some question as to who would be the starting catcher in 2022. In the end, Casali remained the backup, and Bart was brought in as the starter, despite having appeared in only two major league games in 2021.
This is a classic example of a veteran losing out for the simple reason that a prospect needs to get playing time. Bart essentially cut in line on the Giants catcher depth chart. But it turned out to be the right call, as Bart began the season incredibly hot, while Casali’s early-season performance was just as incredibly cold.
Bart cooled off significantly as the 2022 season progressed, but a hopeful future remains for him.
2. Will Health Be an Issue?
All roster plans are tentative, and the biggest reason for this is injury. While some players are counted on to stay healthy more than others, injuries always change things to a greater or lesser degree.
If the Giants were going to be extremely careful with one of their catchers, it would be Bart. He is about to enter what will hopefully be the prime of his career, and this time would be a bad one for him to experience any major setbacks. Therefore, they might sit him if he has even a minor injury or soreness. Wynns, on the other hand, is more likely (though not certain) to play through things.
As far as current information goes, both Wynns and Bart appear to be healthy. As stated previously, Bart is by far the frontrunner for the starting job, but the Giants are certainly glad to have Wynns as well, particularly since they are not choosing to sign Gary Sanchez.
Health is another area in which the future just cannot be predicted exactly. Let’s hope that all in all, the Giants get through the 2023 season with few injuries. This will help to give them their best chance at the postseason.
3. Are There Any Other Candidates for the Position?
Blake Sabol is listed as a possibility in the Giants Opening Day roster projection. The advantage that he has is his exceptional versatility. He has the rare ability to play the outfield as well as catch. He is also a left-handed hitter, which theoretically creates the option of setting up a platoon at catcher if he were on the roster.
But Sabol platooning with Bart is hardly imaginable. If he were somehow to beat out Wynns in spring training and make the roster, he would definitely be the backup. If, however, Bart and Sabol made the team as the catchers, and Bart struggled offensively when the season began, the Giants should seriously consider platooning the two, particularly if Sabol’s bat had played a significant enough role in his cracking the team, and he hadn’t been selected merely for his defensive versatility.
Bart will not be left off the Opening Day roster no matter how well or poorly he performs in spring training, as it seems that he would be out of minor league options at this point. If he was designated for assignment, he would never clear waivers. The Giants only way of holding on to him is to let him play in the big leagues. The question is the distribution of playing time and not whether he will make the roster.
Although Sabol is probably a long shot to make the Giants Opening Day roster, injury could change things as stated previously.
4. Last But Not Least: Could the Giants Fill the DH Spot With a Catcher?
It’s interesting to note that while it is likely that hitting in the DH spot helps a player’s performance in certain specific cases, it doesn’t have an equal effect on all players. It takes careful evaluation to accurately determine which players it benefits. And sometimes, it will be more beneficial to a player at one particular time in his career than another.
This concept is typically thought of in relation to older players, or players that are dealing with an injury. But there is no reason to think that it would never apply to younger players who have enormous potential but have yet to break the barrier and come through with the bat, bringing that potential to fruition. This is the category that Bart fits into. He very well might benefit from being used primarily as a DH in at least the first few months of 2023. Of course, Wynns would need some rest, so this wouldn’t mean that Bart would never have to catch.
Of all the observations, this last one is the key to an ideal catching arrangement. The most effective option for the Giants may actually be to pencil Wynns in as the starting catcher and put Bart in the DH spot to allow him to focus on his hitting. This arrangement need not necessarily be held for the entire year. Bart’s role is not ultimately to be a DH, and he will hopefully be the primary Giants catcher for years to come.
The DH idea would simply be a temporary method of attempting to break the barrier between Bart’s perceived potential and his actual performance. The strategy should be used because it is specifically needed at this particular point in Bart’s career. Offensive focus may turn out to be the key here, especially given the exceptional positional demand of catching.
There is a balance here. For the analytically inclined, one can attempt to look at the effect that such an idea would have on the immediate productivity of the team. Would Wynns be just as good as or better offensively than the guy who would be in the lineup if he was on the bench? If the answer is no, the runs gained from Bart’s increased performance could be compared with the runs lost from giving Wynns playing time as opposed to a better hitter. (The same thinking applies to Sabol were he to make the team.)
But it’s unlikely that the uncertainty outweighs the benefit of giving Bart an extended opportunity to focus almost solely on his hitting. There is every reason to think that the Giants should give the idea a try and open the season with Bart as the DH.
Also, check out this article by Troy Brock on the three most overrated catchers in MLB.