Reds manager Bryan Price doesn’t focus on the stat sheet this early. Nor does he fret over the team’s Cactus League record.
“I like to settle in and get into the middle of the spring training schedule before I start making too many assessments,” Price said. “What I really look for is demeanor.”
Impressions made in spring training can go a long way. Take catcher Tucker Barnhart, who was pressed into duty when Devin Mesoraco went on the disabled list in 2014. Barnhart made the opening-day roster, but he had caught Price’s eye the previous spring.
“You could see his ability to control the game behind the plate,” Price said.
Barnhart played a lot of baseball growing up in Brownsburg, Ind., 16 miles from Indianapolis. At Brownsburg High School he caught current teammate Drew Storen for two seasons. That high school has also produced Cardinals starter Lance Lynn and Gordon Hayward of the NBA’s Utah Jazz.
“We had some good teams,” Barnhart said. “We didn’t win any state championships or anything but we had some good times.”
One of the smaller catchers in the big leagues at 5-foot-8, Barnhart is a switch hitter and a natural left-handed batter. He played middle infield as a youngster.
“Catching just fell into my lap,” Barnhart said. “I can’t run. I’m not fast by any means so that gave way to catching. I took a love to it. I’m in every play. That makes it fun. I enjoy being the quarterback of the team, kind of.”
His father, Kevin, a teacher, played baseball at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. He influenced Tucker to hit from the right side.
“I wanted to try it,” Barnhart said. “My dad taught me how. It’s still a work in progress. I get most of my at-bats from the left side. I think that helps that I get most of my at-bats from my natural side. I’m still working on my swing from the right side.”
Barnhart didn’t think about playing in the majors back then.
“My ultimate goal was to go to college,” said Barnhart, who opted for the amateur draft over attending Georgia Tech. “I was so focused on getting a scholarship that I wasn’t really focused on pro baseball, though obviously that was ideally my goal all along. I didn’t see it for me until I was finished choosing what college I wanted to go to.”
But Barnhart signed with the Reds out of high school after they drafted him in the 10th round and made it worth his while financially. His journey through the farm system was quick, including a stint in Dayton, where in 2011 he anchored the last Dragons team to make the Midwest League playoffs.
Barnhart’s numbers have improved every year, his batting average graduating from .185 in 2014 to .252 in 2015 and .257 last season with a career-high seven home runs and 51 RBIs in a career-high 115 games. His defense and ability to call games have always been first-rate.
Mesoraco is being brought along slowly this spring after shoulder and hip surgeries, so Barnhart is expected to do the bulk of the catching early in the season. While he may not catch 115 games, he will play more than the typical backup.
“There is nothing that Tucker has done for me to have any thoughts of him as merely a second catcher,” Price said.
Mahle impresses: Pitcher Tyler Mahle, another former Dragon and the Reds’ seventh pick in the 2013 draft, has left a positive impression on Price.
“He comes in, gives up a leadoff single, there’s a popup on the infield, we’re not able to make a play on,” Price said, referencing a recent outing. “He strikes out the next hitter on a 97-mph pitch, the highest velocity pitch of the game. Then he gives up a home run on a change-up to a little left-handed hitter from Arizona. He got the next two guys out. His presence made him look like he belonged here. At no point was there a suggestion that he was going to stop competing or that he didn’t trust his stuff.”
Mahle was 13-8 with a 2.43 ERA at Dayton in 2015. Last year he was 14-3 with a 3.64 ERA for Daytona and Pensacola.