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What should Giants realistically expect from Bart next season? originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
The second the Giants used the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft on a catcher, they set the stage for Joey Bart to one day take over for Buster Posey. But the transition will be different than anyone could have imagined.
It was easy back then to envision Posey and Bart being teammates for a couple of years, forming the best catching tandem in the Majors as the face of the franchise taught the younger catcher everything he knows, but Posey and Bart ultimately ended up spending less than a week together on the big league roster. Bart appeared in two games in 2021, and after the season, Posey surprisingly announced his retirement.
That's the biggest twist, but there was another one two years ago. Despite the limited time last season, Bart does have over 100 plate appearances as a big leaguer, having taken over in August of 2020 because the Giants had such glaring issues behind the plate after Posey opted out.
Bart wasn't quite ready back then and the Giants certainly took their time with him last season, but they finally appear poised to hand one of their most important jobs over to one of the highest draft picks in franchise history, and they're hopeful that it's a fruitful transition.
Coming off 107 wins, and with a roster full of veterans, the Giants won't need to rely heavily on Bart -- but recent history shows it's also not unreasonable to have high expectations, even with all that will be thrown at the 25-year-old. That's been shown most by two young catchers on rival teams.
A year after he was drafted, Bart was listed as MLB.com's best catching prospect in the minors, three spots ahead of Oakland's Sean Murphy, who saw some time in 2019 and then took over as the A's primary catcher during the shortened season. Murphy had a .821 OPS and hit seven homers in 43 appearances in 2020, but last year the bat took a step back. He had a .216/.306/.405 slash line but did hit 17 homers and win a Gold Glove.
Murphy was one of two players under the age of 29 to finish among the top 10 catchers in WAR, and the other is someone the Giants -- unfortunately -- know very well. Will Smith had several big hits against them last season and finished with a .860 OPS and 25 homers in his age-26 season.
Like Bart, Smith is a powerful right-handed hitter who is a former first-rounder and top 100 prospect. Unlike Bart, he has never had a rough year at the big league level. Smith had a .907 OPS and hit 15 homers in 54 games as a rookie in 2019 and followed that up with a .980 OPS and eight homers in 2020 while serving as the primary catcher for a championship team.
With Posey retired, Smith has a strong claim to being the NL's best catcher, and he has been an outlier of sorts. For every Murphy and Smith, there's an example of why the Giants will need to continue to show patience with their own young catcher.
The second-best catcher on that 2019 list, Francisco Mejia, is on his third team and posted a .738 OPS and six homers last year for the Rays. Next up was Keibert Ruiz, who got beat out by Smith and became a centerpiece of the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner deal. The 22-year-old has shown plenty of promise but has yet to fully establish himself. Rounding out the top five was Toronto's Danny Jansen, who has hit 30 homers over the last three seasons but also has struggled to hit for average and get on base.
That could be a realistic baseline initially for Bart, who has a .239/.291/.321 slash line in his big league cameos but was at .294/.358/.472 in Triple-A last year. It's fair to expect that he'll continue to strike out quite a bit as he gets comfortable, and that should depress the average, but the Giants also know there's plenty of power in that bat and that will show with consistent playing time.
In theory, Bart is being asked to replace a middle-of-the-order bat, but it's worth remembering that Gabe Kapler didn't build his 2021 lineup that way. Posey, coming off a year away and some down seasons, hit seventh on opening day last season, and the Giants -- with just about everyone returning, and room to add another free agent or two -- can afford to start Bart in a similar spot and let him get up to speed.
The biggest factor in the Giants' success with Bart in the lineup will be what he is able to do on the other side of the ball, and in that respect, he should benefit from the time he did get to spend with Posey and Curt Casali last season. While Bart only got six at-bats, he was on the taxi squad several times, including the postseason, when he caught bullpen sessions from veteran starters.
"Any time I ever needed him when he was around, he was there to catch or play catch, and I've really enjoyed throwing to him," starter Alex Wood said after he re-signed late last year. "He receives the ball really well. I'm excited to work with him."
The Giants put Bart in a tough spot in 2020, but he'll be much better prepared to handle the staff next season. If the bat develops as well, it shouldn't be long before he starts living up to the hype and gives them a young catcher who can go head to head with the one their biggest rival has.