The Los Angeles Dodgers, in part, dealt top prospect Keibert Ruiz in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner deadline explosion of 2021 because they had too many mouths to feed behind the plate.
Austin Barnes (who’s since been extended) is a capable backstop and backup. Will Smith, one of the game’s best-hitting young catchers, was seemingly established as the team’s primary option until his free agency following the 2025 season. Top prospect Diego Cartaya was far enough away that, if he ended up blocked for several seasons while blossoming, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Ruiz, on the other hand, was stuck in the middle. Most observers agreed he was clearly ready for primetime, but a big-league role as the Dodgers’ third catcher did him no favors. Where was his window to contribute? Unless LA believed in him strongly enough to shake up their dominant roster by dealing Smith instead, Ruiz was among the easiest top prospects to trade … ever.
In 2022, he posted a 95 OPS+/1.6 WAR while playing solid defense for the last-place Washington Nationals. The Dodgers would do it again, 10 times out of 10.
And yet, for whatever reason, the carousel seems to be on the verge of spinning once more, perhaps set into motion by LA’s turbulent playoff exit. According to Mass Live’s Chris Cotillo in his review of the alternative offseason catching options to Christian Vázquez, he believes Smith could be on the clock.
(Windhorst voice) Now … why would he say that?
Wait, Dodgers might entertain trading Will Smith? So soon?
"With Willson Contreras headlining the class, Vázquez (1.6 fWAR in 2022) is one of the better secondary options out there along with Mike Zunino, Gary Sánchez, Omar Narváez and Roberto Pérez. The trade market, which will include Oakland’s Sean Murphy and, possibly, the Dodgers’ Will Smith, provides better alternatives for catcher-needy teams. So while Vázquez might very well get a multi-year deal, it’s possible he gets a single year if the market collapses. It’s also very possible he makes less than or close to what he did in 2022 ($7 million)."
In the oft chance that this occurs, how would the Dodgers pivot? Unlike midway through 2021, Cartaya probably isn’t ready for primetime; he drilled 22 homers with an .892 OPS at High-A this season, and will enter next year as a 21-year-old. Maybe 2024, probably not 2023.
Are the Dodgers, then, so desperate to move off Smith that they’d add a one-year, defense-first option to hold things down and split time with Barnes? Omar Narváez and former Rays stalwart Mike Zunino are at least a little intriguing, as long as the team believes Cartaya isn’t far off (and that Smith isn’t all he’s cracked up to be).
That said … Smith was worth 4.1 WAR this season and hit 24 homers with a 120 OPS+. That’s his lowest mark since his debut (133, 162 in 2020, 127 leading into 2022), but it’s still remarkably impressive for the position.
In the postseason? Slightly different story, though. Smith has a 22.4% strikeout rate during the regular season, but a small-sample-size 27.4% mark against better pitching in October. He hits .204 career during postseason play, and more series than not decreases the Dodgers’ Championship Probability rather than adding to it.
If the team believes Cartaya is nearly advanced enough to challenge for the gig, and that they can survive a full season with Zunino and Barnes (Injury Attorneys?), then perhaps Andrew Friedman pulls the trigger here a year or two ahead of anyone’s expectations.