The Los Angeles Dodgers had very few weaknesses on their roster by mid-July. One of the most glaring ones, though, was at catcher. By July 24, Austin Barnes was hitting for just a .196 batting average and .616 on-base plus slugging percentage.
Veteran Russell Martin had been better than Barnes, but not great, either. So the Dodgers decided to send Barnes down to Triple-A Oklahoma City and bring up prospect Will Smith, who had excelled over his first couple of big-league stints.
Not only did Smith and Barnes swap places, the former took on the starting job behind the plate in a change that paid off immediately for the Dodgers. Smith has continued to produce and set multiple records of late, including with his home run against the Atlanta Braves.
Barnes, meanwhile, has made progress in his attempt to rediscover the form that made him the Dodgers’ starting catcher during their first back-to-back World Series runs in over 40 years.
He’s reached a higher level of comfort away from the bright lights of Los Angeles, per Jorge Castillo of the L.A. Times:
“I feel better at the plate,” Barnes said. “I feel like I’m swinging at better pitches and recognizing the ball better. So, yeah, I think that was just the result of that. I feel more comfortable.”
In 16 games since his demotion, Barnes is hitting .270 with a .984 OPS, signaling a possible turnaround. He additionally had a stretch of five consecutive games with a home run.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has already guaranteed that Barnes will return to the Majors once rosters expand on Sept. 1.
Barnes could still contend for a spot on the postseason roster upon his return. Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson received second-half demotions to Triple-A in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and both eventually played in the playoffs. Pederson may have won 2017 World Series MVP had the Dodgers beaten the Houston Astros in Game 7 that year.
Smith has flourished in the starting role and looks like the team’s catcher of the future. He has already passed Cody Bellinger for most home runs and RBI through his first 23 Major League games in Dodgers history.
The Dodgers also count catcher Keibert Ruiz among their top prospects, though Ruiz is likely done for the season due to a broken finger.
Yet, Barnes has a track record of playoff experience and team success not seen by a Dodgers catcher since Mike Scioscia was still playing. He may face an uphill battle to a postseason roster spot between Smith’s excellence and Martin’s veteran clubhouse leadership, but Barnes’ 2019 season may not be over yet.