Aug. 21: Barnhart has now been released, tweets Sullivan. He’s a free agent and can sign with any team.
Aug. 19: The Cubs have informed reporters, including Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune, that catcher Tucker Barnhart has been designated for assignment. Infielder Miles Mastrobuoni has been recalled in a corresponding move.
Barnhart, 32, was signed in the offseason to a two-year deal with a $6.5MM guarantee. It was a sensible addition for the Cubs at the time, given their uncertainty behind the plate. Willson Contreras had that position locked down for many years but reached free agency after 2022 and signed with the Cardinals. The Cubs still had Yan Gomes, but he was coming off a down year and entering his age-35 season. Miguel Amaya was a notable prospect on the 40-man roster, but he had missed significant development time thanks to the pandemic and Tommy John surgery, having not yet reached Triple-A by the end of 2022.
Bringing in another catcher to improve the depth was an obvious move and Barnhart was a logical choice as an experienced veteran. He debuted in 2014 and played with the Reds through 2021, then spent one season with the Tigers. He hit .245/.320/.360 in that time for a wRC+ of 80, indicating he was 20% below league average at the plate overall, but catchers often hit a bit less than average in general. He paired that with solid defense, having racked up 12 Defensive Runs Saved and winning a pair of Gold Gloves. On Statcast’s catcher blocking leaderboard, Barnhart was ranked the best backstop in the league from 2018 to 2022, and also earned good grades for his work with the running game.
Unfortunately, the results at the plate haven’t been there for Barnhart this year. He’s hit just .202/.285/.257 for a wRC+ of 53, striking out in 34.1% of his appearances, easily the worst such mark of his career. That’s coincided with a bounceback season from Gomes and a strong debut from Amaya. The former is hitting .269/.310/.433 for a 98 wRC+ with the latter at .245/.368/.383 and a 113 wRC+. The club has had all three backstops on the active roster for over two months now but Barnhart has been squeezed out of playing time, only getting two plate appearances since August 1. It seems the club would rather use that roster spot to add some extra infield depth, bringing up Mastrobuoni today.
With the trade deadline now passed, the Cubs will have to put Barnhart on waivers in the coming days. He would surely go unclaimed, given his recent struggles and his contract. His deal came with even salaries of $3.25MM this year and next, along with the ability to opt-out after the first season. There’s still roughly $770K left to be paid out this year and the full amount next year. Once he passes through waivers, he has more than enough service time to reject an outright assignment and elect free agency, with the Cubs remaining on the hook for that money. Any other club could then sign him for the prorated league minimum with that amount subtracted from what the Cubs pay.
Going forward, the Cubs will stick with the duo of Gomes and Amaya. The latter just debuted this season and still has years of club control remaining. Gomes is in the final guaranteed season of his contract but the Cubs have a $6MM club option for 2024 with a $1MM buyout. Perhaps the departure of Barnhart makes it more likely they pick up that option and keep Gomes for one more year, though they could always find another complement for Amaya in the offseason.