Tuesday, February 7, 2012

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By Robert Cunningham - AngelsWin.com Feature Writer

Major league managers, coaches, and scouts always talk about the importance of pitching depth. However, and perhaps just as importantly, catching depth is also critical to a team’s success. The Angels have created a catching corps of Chris Iannetta, Hank Conger, and Bobby Wilson to provide Mike Scioscia with options for the 2012 season.

First of all, we are well aware of how important the catching position is to Mike Scioscia. The Angels manager has always emphasized a “defense-first” mentality along with the ability to call a good game in his catchers. This was the crux of Mike’s argument in playing Jeff Mathis over Mike Napoli over the last handful of years. However, that particular situation has ended, but a discussion of the current situation needs to be explained and understood.

The acquisition of Iannetta from the Rockies appears to be a solid transitional move for the Angels. Clearly the coaching staff and front office feel that Conger is not quite ready for the starting position from a defense and game calling standpoint. By bringing in Iannetta, the Angels are giving Conger the opportunity to progress and improve his catching abilities to prepare him for a possible starting role in 2013/2014 (dependent on whether Iannetta voids his 2013 option or not).

If Conger does show the improvement that Mike Scioscia and Jerry Dipoto want to see, then I think Conger becomes our primary catcher next year (assuming Iannetta voids his option). Or, if Iannetta stays one more year with the Angels, then Conger will start in 2014. But what happens if Conger doesn’t improve this season? What do the Angels do then?

I think that this year will really decide Conger’s fate with the Angels. If he becomes the MLB player that we all hoped for, then all is well. However if he doesn’t improve, or shows regression, I think that we will see the Angels attempt to sign a free agent such as Yadier Molina (who is good friends with Albert Pujols) to be the primary catcher. Conger would likely be traded within the next 2 years once the Angels front office can acquire additional catching depth (either through trades or the development of prospects like Abel Baker, Carlos Ramirez, Jett Bandy, et. al.).

However the Angels do have to be wary of their team budget moving forward. Conger is cost-controlled for the next two seasons, making the league minimum, and then would enter arbitration in 2014. He will become a free agent after the 2016 season. Yadier Molina would cost a minimum of $6-7 million per year and more likely would command a salary in the range of $8-10 million per year. I think the decision will come down to two factors: Can Conger improve enough to satisfy the coaching staff and is Yadier Molina willing to sign with the Angels, at a reduced salary, to play with his good friend Albert? I think it is the former but everything rides on Conger’s shoulders.

Moving beyond the discussion of who becomes our primary catcher of the future I think it is important to discuss the thinking behind the acquisition of Iannetta and the platoon arrangement and depth that this trade provides. Here are Iannetta’s, Conger’s, and Wilson’s Major League career numbers:


Major League Career Numbers
Name
Age
AVG
BB%
K%
OBP
SLG
OPS
ISO
BABIP
Iannetta
28
0.235
13.90%
21.90%
0.357
0.43
0.788
0.195
0.272
Conger
23
0.204
9.50%
19.90%
0.284
0.345
0.629
0.141
0.234
Wilson
28
0.206
7.70%
17.50%
0.268
0.344
0.612
0.138
0.233


There are a few things that we have to consider regarding the numbers above. First of all, Iannetta has played in the Major Leagues for a total of 6 seasons in contrast to Conger, who has two seasons, and Wilson, who has 4 seasons. The latter two haven’t yet played a full season, unlike Iannetta who has 4 full seasons under his belt. This is one of the primary reasons the Angels brought Iannetta onboard because of his MLB experience and endurance to play over a full season.

Another thing to consider is the fact that due to Conger’s and Wilson’s limited play over the course of their MLB careers the numbers above do not completely and accurately reflect either players true potential. For instance, Conger’s .204 AVG (Batting average) and .141 ISO (Isolated Power, a statistic that simply measures a hitter’s ability to hit for power) do not reflect the type of hitter he was in the minor leagues where he had a career AVG of .298 and an ISO of approximately .170 (solid above-average power).

To continue, we also need to understand each players career splits (how each hitter does versus Left-Handed Pitchers and Right-Handed Pitchers). Remember that Conger is a switch-hitter:

Major League Career Splits

# of MLB Seasons
Career AVG vs. LHP
Career AVG vs. RHP
Chris Iannetta
6
.252
.229
Hank Conger*
2
.154
.207
Bobby Wilson
4
.256
.176
* Switch-hitter

Conger’s numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt. His limited MLB playing time has skewed his numbers as evidenced by his minor league season splits found here. When you look at Conger’s minor league splits you notice that he hits right-handers particularly well. In fact Conger has experienced periods of difficulty against left-handers which helps to explain why the Angels coaching staff has limited his Major league at-bats to right-handed pitchers up to this point. However it should be noted that Conger generally improved his hitting against lefties as he rose through the minors and should still be given the opportunity to show he can handle them moving forward.

By looking at these numbers it is easier to realize why the Angels front office put these three players together in a platoon:

• Iannetta hitting mainly against LHP and some RHP, Conger mainly against RHP, and Wilson as a reserve (preferable to substitute him against lefties, possibly as a pinch hitter for Conger in late game situations against LHP).
• Iannetta provides 1-2 years of veteran catching experience and can mentor Conger and Wilson.
• Iannetta has 4 full seasons of playing time and endurance under his belt.
• Conger has an opportunity to improve his defensive and game-calling skill set in 2012 without the pressure of being the primary starter.
• Conger can, with a good 2012 season, take over full-time catching duties in the 2013-2014 season time frame.
• Iannetta and Wilson currently, have a better overall batting average against left-handed pitching.
• Conger has a very strong minor league track record of crushing right-handed pitching and should be able to hit left-handed pitching at under or close to a MLB average level (about .240-.260 or so) as he progresses in his game.
• Finally Conger or Wilson can be late-inning pinch-hitting options versus righties and lefties, respectively, capable of punching an extra-base hit in a close game.

Iannetta was brought in as a stop-gap measure to allow the Angels to observe and evaluate Conger’s performance through the 2012 season. Conger has the ability to hit for a .280 batting average and 10+ HR’s on an annual basis. Once Iannetta is gone, Wilson should be a great complimentary platoon player for Conger by slotting in against left-handed pitchers as Wilson has a career OPS of .800 against them. Assuming Conger begins to improve and be more consistent against lefties he will eventually have the bulk (100+ games) of the catching duties.

The Iannetta trade was, upon reflection, a good move for the Angels although we did have to give up a young, cost-controlled starting pitcher in Tyler Chatwood (who, at best, probably would have been a #4 or #5 type). It gives us starting catcher depth which is needed over the course of a long season (ask the Tigers who just lost Victor Martinez for the season with a torn ACL) so that if we do lose Iannetta or Conger, to injury, Wilson can effectively back them up until they return.

I see Iannetta catching 90+ games for the Angels this season, providing above average defense and game calling along with power and the ability to get on-base. Conger will play at least 50+ games (I suspect he will play about 60 or so) while continuing to develop his defense, game-calling, and hitting against right-handed pitchers in most situations. Conger also has the ability to maintain an above average OBP (he has a career minor league OBP of approximately .360). Wilson will probably maintain a career as a back-up, platoon catcher who has some gap/HR power which fits in well with the current situation. Additionally Wilson is out of options so I see the Angels carrying 3 catchers to start the season (and most likely all the way through to, hopefully, the playoffs).

2012 Projections:

Iannetta - .245/.375/.425 and 15 HR’s (in 255 At-bats)
Conger - .265/.320/.420 and 8 HR’s (in 180 At-bats)
Wilson - .205/.270/.355 and 2 HR’s (in 115 At-bats)
Love to hear what you think!

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