Could the Rays Join the Mix for Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger?
By Robbie Knopf
Just about every team in baseball wishes they had a franchise catcher. The few who have one wouldn’t part with them for the world. Not once in their history have the Rays ever been arguably among that group. 2013 saw some optimism arise in the form of Jose Lobaton‘s strong season, but it was also the Rays’ third straight season of a catching tandem, and pending a trade or free agent signing, 2014 with be fourth. The Rays have some players in thier system that they hope will be starting catchers someday–Oscar Hernandez, Nick Ciuffo, and maybe even 2013 breakout Curt Casali–but none are ready and the Rays will still assess their options seeing if the opportunity arises to acquire someone else. Their division rival Toronto Blue Jays are going after Angels catchers Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger, and don’t be surprised if the Rays get involved as well.
Iannetta, 30, never lived up to the promise he displayed when he put up a .895 OPS with 18 home runs in his first full season in 2008, but he has nevertheless emerged as a strong offensive catcher the last several years. In 2013, Iannetta hit to a .225/.358/.372 line (109 OPS+) with 15 doubles, 11 homers, and 39 RBI in 399 plate appearances. For his career, Iannetta has a .772 OPS (101 OPS+), strong for a catcher, and he has been especially good against left-handed pitching as a right-handed hitter, mashing them for a .869 OPS. At the plate, Iannetta shows excellent plate discipline with flashes of power, and whilke he isn’t flashy, he’s one of just 12 catchers to maintain an OPS+ of 105 or higher the last three years (minimum 1000 plate appearances). The most shocking stat of all: of that list of 12, only Yadier Molina and Buster Posey matched Iannetta with an OPS+ above 100 each season. With the difficulty of the catcher position, catcher offense can come and go. But for Iannetta, he has proven himself as one of the most dependable options in baseball.
Defense, though, is another story. Iannetta is below-average at throwing out baserunners, managing just a 19% mark in 2013, and he doesn’t do a great job blocking balls in the dirt either, allowing 6 or more passed balls the last three years. Iannetta is considered a poor pitch framer as well. What Iannetta gives you on offense is negated, at least in part, by his defensive struggles. It’s no coincidence that he has never made 450 plate appearances in a season despite his strong bat. And for a player with clear flaws, he also is not signed to the cheapest deal. He’s set to make $4,750,000 in 2014 and then $5,525,000 in 2015. Iannetta does have some experience at third base and first base, and if the Rays got ahold of him, it might be interesting to see if they would play him at least occasionally at third base against left-handed pitching with Evan Longoria at DH. But given his salary and inability to be a true starting catcher because of hsi defense, you have to think that the Rays’ interest in him would not go too far. The Rays were willing to give up Derek Dietrich to acquire Yunel Escobar. Would the Rays consider dealing a similarly solid prospect for a player like Iannetta?
Hank Conger may have shared the Angels’ catching role with Iannetta,but that is about all they have in common. Conger, 25, slipped to jsut 22 plate appearances in 2012 after making 193 in 2011, but he came back in 2013 to have his best season yet. Conger managed a .249/.310/.403 line (101 OPS+) with 13 doubles, 7 homers, and 21 RBI. Conger has never been much of a power threat, never registering more than 13 home runs in any season in the minor leagues, and his plate discipline is not great either. He struck out 61 times against just 17 walks during his time in the majors after putting up a still-mediocre 49-19 mark at Triple-A. Conger shows some bat speed, but after just one decent season at the plate in the major leagues, it is far from a sure thing that Conger will hit enough to be a starting catcher. In addition, Conger, a switch-hitter, was much better as against righties in 2012 (.724 OPS against .629 versus lefties), and the Angels have limited his at-bats against lefties on the whole as over 90% of his at-bats have come as a left-handed hitter. But unlike Iannetta, Conger’s defense is much better and he has time left under team control.
Conger made seven errors in 2013, second in the American League, but it seems like that was a fluke compared to his strong defensive skill-set. Conger was regarded as an above-average pitch-framer, he threw out a decent 24% of attempted basestealers, and he has allowed just 2 passed balls in 144 major league games. Conger can seemingly be relied upon as a strong defender behind the plate, and if his bat can continue to improve he could be a valuable player. Conger will not be arbitration-eligible until following the 2014 season and represents an interesting option as a strong defender who has shown talent at the plate and is cheap for at least one more year. If the price was right for Conger–once again, a mid-level prospect–he could be the type of player the Rays could at least consider.
Neither Chris Iannetta nor Hank Conger is a perfect fit for the Rays, and a more likely role for them in engaging the Angels is trying to raise the cost for Toronto. But even if the Rays will not be particularly active in the talks, they will be ready to pounce if they find a good deal. That good deal could even come from the Blue Jays. If Toronto acquired Iannetta or Conger, that could make J.P. Arencibia expendable. Arencibia, 27, is coming off a disastrous year in which he managed just a .592 OPS and he is eligible for arbitration for the first time this offseason, but would the Rays consider buying low on him if their division rival Jays left him there for the taking? Arencibia has little plate discipline and is always among the league leaders in passed balls, but he also has outstanding power–only Matt Wieters and Brian McCann have matched Arencibia with 18 homers the last three seasons as a catcher. Arencibia is far from an ideal option for the Rays, but if they could acquire him for an organizational player, could they really say no?
As the Blue Jays converse with the Angels about a deal for the catcher, the Rays will sit there on the periphery waiting to make a move. Maybe they’ll just try to jack up the price for the Blue Jays and maybe even that won’t even work out. However, if they see a chance to acquire Iannetta or Conger at the right price, they will not be afraid to jump in, and if a player like Arencibia became available from Toronto after they made a deal, that could be another move the Rays could make as well.