The baseball whistled into the mitt of Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes. He rose for a return throw to pitcher Kenta Maeda. Barnes settled back into his crouch, a picture of late February mundanity at Camelback Ranch.
Barnes completed a regular workout Thursday. He caught Maeda during an inning of live batting practice. He threw to bases with the other catchers. He maintained he felt healthy, even after manager Dave Roberts revealed Barnes will not catch in a game for the first week of the Cactus League because of elbow discomfort.
“I could play in a game tomorrow,” Barnes said. “It’s not always my decision. Whatever they say, that’s what’s best for everybody.”
The spring season begins Friday against the Chicago White Sox. If Barnes appears in a game, it will be as a designated hitter. Roberts indicated the team did not want to put Barnes at risk in a competitive environment this early in camp.
“To get him in a game, and try to throw a runner out potentially, we just want to be cautious,” Roberts said.
Barnes’ elbow began “barking” before he arrived at camp, Roberts said. Barnes blamed his ailment on an excessive amount of throwing during the offseason. Though he surged into the starting role in October, Barnes still struggled with the running game.
Improving his throwing was a focus of his winter regimen. His diligence backfired, he explained.
“I probably threw too much on my own,” Barnes said. “It was my fault. I was just trying to iron some things out, and this kind of stuff happens. They’re just trying to take it easy.”
At this stage of spring, teams favor caution over aggression. The Dodgers are closely monitoring the elbow of shortstop Corey Seager, who dealt with inflammation in the joint during the second half of 2017. After spraining his ankle last week, pitcher Alex Wood has been cleared to throw live batting practice, but has been limited in his conditioning drills.
The Dodgers can afford patience with Barnes. Their depth at catcher is considered the best in baseball by some rival scouts and executives. Barnes will split time at the major league level with former All-Star Yasmani Grandal. The organization trusts Kyle Farmer as the third catcher, while the lower levels feature intriguing prospects like Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith.
Grandal and Barnes formed an elite platoon in 2017. Though Grandal entered the season as the starter, Barnes usurped him in October. Barnes finished the season with an .895 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, although his bat cooled in the playoffs. He hit .217 in October.
Despite Barnes’ breakout last year, the Dodgers appear committed to reprising the platoon concept for 2018. Grandal, a switch-hitter, is expected to start most of the games against right-handed pitchers. Barnes, a right-handed batter, would start against left-handed pitchers. Barnes demonstrated an ability to foil right-handed pitching in 2017, which provided Roberts the confidence to start him in the playoffs.
Barnes will have to reclaim that spot in 2018. And he will have to do so after being delayed this spring. Roberts suggested Barnes’ throwing program will be more intensive than the one Seager is on. But the team will still be careful.
“It sucks, but what are you going to do about it?” Barnes said. “It’s better to take it slow right now, than re-aggravate it or something like that and be out even longer, with the season coming up.”
KERSHAW TO START ON SUNDAY
Clayton Kershaw will make his Cactus League debut Sunday against the Seattle Mariners in Peoria.
Kershaw indicated this week he would pitch one inning during this outing. He threw an inning of live batting practice Tuesday. He is on track to start March 29, which would be his eighth consecutive opening day assignment.
His opponent on the mound that day appears set: San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner will also start Sunday, putting him on a collision course with Kershaw.
SHORT HOPS: Outfielder Andrew Toles will play the outfield in Saturday’s split-squad doubleheader against San Francisco and Kansas City. Toles has not appeared in a game since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in May. Roberts indicated he was curious to see how Toles fares in the outfield after reconstructive surgery.