Tony Barnette was born in Anchorage, Alaska, in November 1983, making him one of just a handful of Anchoragites to play professional baseball—the most notable of them being likely Hall of Famer Curt Schilling. Barnette's family eventually moved to Washington state, where Barnette played for Thomas Jefferson High School. He went undrafted and attended Central Arizona College, an NJCAA Division I school.
In 2003, his first year with the Central Arizona Vaqueros, Barnette went 5-0 with a 1.66 ERA in 48.2 innings over 13 games, striking out 38 and walking 15. In his second year there, he went 7-1 with a 2.16 ERA in 87.2 innings over 25 games, striking out 66 and walking 24. In 2003, the right-hander transferred to Arizona State University. Against NCAA Division I competition in the Pac-12, Barnette went 4-1 but had a disappointing 7.02 ERA in 50 innings (29 games/five starts) with 53 strikeouts and 19 walks. He understandably went undrafted and returned to pitch for the Sun Devils in 2006. He did better in his second season with the baseball powerhouse that is ASU, going 6-1 with a 4.77 ERA in 54.2 innings (21 games/seven starts) with 70 strikeouts, a team high, and 17 walks.
The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted Barnette with their 10th-round pick, and the 297th selection overall, in the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft and immediately assigned him to the Missoula Osprey, their rookie ball Pioneer League affiliate. The 22-year-old went 6-4 with the Osprey with a 3.89 ERA, 74 strikeouts, and 20 walks in 76.1 innings over 15 starts, placing him third in the league in strikeouts and fifth in the league in wins. Barnette was promoted to the South Bend Silver Hawks, the Diamondbacks' Low-A affiliate in the Midwest League, in 2007. There, he posted a 3.60 ERA in 160 innings (26 games/25 starts), striking out 108 and walking 28.
In 2008, Arizona skipped Barnette over their High-A affiliate completely, and assigned him to the Double-A Mobile BayBears of the Southern League. The right-hander was nothing but consistent, posting a 3.87 ERA in 153.2 innings over 27 starts, with a league-high 133 strikeouts and 42 walks. The Diamondbacks again promoted Barnette for the 2009 season, this time assigning him to the Triple-A Reno Aces of the Pacific Coast League. As is the case with many pitchers, the 25-year-old struggled in the PCL, posting a 5.79 ERA in 164.2 innings over 29 starts, with 121 strikeouts and 24 walks.
A minor league free agent at that point, Barnette elected to sign with the Yakult Swallows for ¥50 million (roughly $414,350), plus incentives. The team had ended the 2009 season with only two pitchers reaching double-digit win totals (Shohei Tateyama and Masanori Ishikawa), and the front office felt that signing Barnette would be the best way to bolster the Swallows' rotation at a low price. Barnette had a strong debut, pitching seven scoreless innings with 11 strikeouts against the Yokohama BayStars, but his season quickly went downhill from there. He wound up going 4-5 with a 5.99 ERA in 79.2 innings (16 games/15 starts), striking out 70 and walking 41, and earning a demotion to the Swallows' ni-gun (minor league) squad for part of the season. He didn't pitch much better there, posting a 5.03 ERA in 34 innings over 11 games.
After the media reported that the Swallows would not bring Barnette back for the 2011 season, the organization made an abrupt about-face when talks with Korean reliever Young-Soo Bae fell through. The Swallows decided to bring back Barnette and the two sides agreed to a one-year, ¥25 million (roughly $207,175) contract. Shifted to the bullpen and aided by the league-wide drop in offense due to the introduction of the new, standardized Mizuno baseball, Barnette rewarded the Swallows' interest in him by posting a 2.68 ERA in 47 innings over 48 games, with 54 strikeouts and 13 walks. However, his season ended prematurely when he suffered an avulsion fracture in his right wrist while pitching against the Yomiuri Giants in early September. Nonetheless, the Swallows were convinced that his success was no fluke and re-signed him to a one-year contract worth ¥58 million (roughly $480,530), plus incentives, for the 2012 season. Sure enough, Barnette continued to excel in the bullpen.
In 2012, the right-hander became the Swallows' primary closer. He saved 33 games while posting a 1.82 ERA in 54.1 innings over 57 games, with 52 strikeouts, and was rewarded with a new, two-year, ¥386 million (roughly $3.2 million) contract for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Unfortunately, injuries plagued Barnette during the length of that contract. In early April 2013, he pulled his right oblique, sidelining him for almost a month. Limited to 40.1 innings in 47 games, the 29-year-old saved seven games while posting a career-high 6.02 ERA. In early April 2014, he partially tore his left posterior cruciate ligament, keeping him sidelined until mid-June. Later in the season, in mid-September, Barnette was diagnosed with an oblique injury. Though the injury was relatively minor, requiring only two to three weeks of recovery time, the timing of the muscle tightness effectively ended his season, and so Yakult removed him from its 2014 roster. All in all, Barnette saved 14 games, posting a 3.34 ERA in 32.1 innings over 33 games in 2014.
In December 2014, the Swallows announced that they had reached another agreement with Barnette. The two sides agreed to a one-year, ¥186 million (roughly $1.5 million) contract for the 2015 season, representing an ¥18 million (roughly $150,000) raise from the previous year. Fully healthy this year, Barnette not only returned to form, but had his best season to date. The 31-year-old saved a career-high 41 games while posting a 1.29 ERA in 62.2 innings over 59 games, striking out 56 and walking 19. His dominance at the end of games was a big reason why the Swallows made the Japan Series.
In mid-October, Barnette put in a request to the Swallows' front office to have him posted for the 2016 season. The team was still interested in retaining his services but went along with the veteran hurler's wishes. The posting of a foreign player is uncommon but not unheard of. In total, three foreign-born players have been posted by NPB teams: The Hiroshima Toyo Carp posted Alejandro Diaz (formerly Alejandro Quezada) and Timo Perez in 1999, and Ramon Ramirez in 2003. It is being reported that the Swallows will look for a bid as low as $500,000 to transfer the Barnette's services.
"When I played baseball in Japan, I focused on that and did my best. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I still thought about the majors," Barnette said." I'm lucky to even be in a situation where I can include it as an option. I think the things I did with the Swallows helped me get here."
Though born and raised in the United States, Barnette has incorporated traditional elements of Japanese baseball into his pitching windup. Most notably, he incorporates the slight hesitation in his delivery that is common among Japanese pitchers. He otherwise throws from a high three-quarters angle, using his trunk well and leaving himself in good fielding position.
Detailed pitch information is unfortunately slightly out of date, but at his best, Barnette threw a low-90s fastball that he could cut and sink, as well as a curveball, a slider, and a changeup. The development of his cutter and sinker had a profound impact on his skill set after he began experimenting with the pitches in 2011 and fully utilized them in his pitching arsenal in 2012, coinciding with his development into a premium closer.
Could he be a relatively low-cost option for the Mets' bullpen heading into the 2016 season?