It’s not every day that you hear about the Rays throwing around so much money! They committed to spending well over $30 million yesterday and had enough to spare to acquire C Hank Conger.
The Rays found enough money to tender all of their arbitration eligible players contracts. The cost, based on MLBTR’s arbitration projections, add up to approximately $31.6 million. That they were willing to do so doesn’t man they’ll keep all of them onboard, of course, it may simply indicate they believe that they can trade them. In particular, Jacob McGee has drawn a lot of trade chatter and may be the biggest trade chip the Rays have this offseason.
With catching issues plaguing the team last season, the Rays decided to send some cash over to the Astros in return for Hank Conger who we’ll examine further below.
The news was broken by Marc Topkin through Twitter:
So what skills does Hank Conger provide the Rays, you may ask?
HANK CONGER – 6’2″ 220 lbs – Switch-Hitter – 27 years old
From: Federal Way, WA. Playing in when drafted: Huntington Beach CA
Drafted: by the Angels in the 1st rd of the 2006 draft (same year the Devil Rays selected Evan Longoria)
In 2010, Baseball America ranked Conger as the 84th best prospect in baseball, and Will Lingo ranked him as the 48th best Prospect in baseball on his list. He was ranked the best Angels prospect by Matt Eddy:
"“With his well above-average bat speed and power from both sides of the plate, Conger’s potential as a run producer has been readily apparent since he signed.”"
Eddy also noted his defensive issues, his ability to stop base-stealers in particular, but added that if he stayed healthy and behind the plate, he had all-star potential.
There are a couple of this I want to point out from the stats listed above. First, Conger had his most productive season in 2015 with the Astros. He hit more extra base hits per AB, drove in more runs, and managed a career high 106 OPS+. However, the biggest increase was in slugging, as Conger managed a .448 SLG, well above what the Rays did as a team in 2015 when they slugged .406, good for 14th in MLB.
Conger Splits in 2015
Conger’s value to the Rays is rooted in his performance vs RHP. With a whopping .538 slugging against them, he’s also managed an outstanding 13 extra base hits in only 104 AB in 2015. That did come on the back of a fairly high .328 BAbip.
Looking at the difference in performance between all RHP and starter RHP, you can see that he faired best against relievers which brought all of his numbers up a notch. In case you were wondering, he was only used as a sub for 18 AB in 2015, so the stats aren’t there to ponder about an off-the-bench role.
And finally, although he did best vs RHP, he wasn’t a complete disaster against LHP starters. His power remained steady which is encouraging.
Looking through Conger’s extended stats the thing that jumps out is his oWAR and overall WAR ratings. Since 2013, both have steadily been above-average while his dWAR has been average or slightly above-average for the most part.
You can also see that his -6 Rfield was somewhat of an anomaly.
In terms of fielding, Conger has shown an ability to be average overall, with last season’s 2% CS being a big outlier. The Rays are likely betting that situational circumstances are the cause of such an outlier and that Conger will bounce back strong in 2016. His RF/9 is actually better than the lgRF9 and he’s definitely not error prone behind the plate.
Trade for Cash Doesn’t Make Sense
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Here’s where I stand on this acquisition: it doesn’t make sense since the Astros are flush with cash and not exactly deep at the catcher position. Also, they acquired him from Los Angeles
in return for C
, indicating just how highly they thought of Conger when 2015 began. And finally, the Rays are not exactly loaded, so you know the exchange of cash was a fairly nominal amount.
This tells us that the Astros are either going to sign a catcher who is on the market, or they wanted to play Max Stassi more often. They could add someone like Dioner Navarro, for instance, and shore up that position for a deep playoff run.
What I find most surprising is that despite having a career year at the plate, and one year removed from being acquired for a good catcher and pitcher, Conger’s value dropped a ton simply based on his ability to throw out base-stealers.
Rays Bought Low, Conger May Prove to be a Steal
There’s no doubt the Rays needed to improve their offensive output behind the plate. Instead of chasing a catcher like Dioner Navarro who could cost the team a lot more, they decided to buy low on Conger and give him a chance to improve his stock in 2016.
Sep 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros catcher Hank Conger (16) and relief pitcher Michael Feliz (68) celebrate after defeating the Minnesota Twins 8-0 at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
At an expected cost of $1.8 million through arbitration in 2016, Conger will have one more arbitration year before becoming a free agent in 2018. He’s getting a chance to prove he’s worth more than a cash transaction and will certainly get enough playing time in 2016 to do so, as long as he doesn’t repeat his inability to throw out runners.
If he does, the Rays can approach the issue the best way they can and deal with Conger at a minimal cost to the team.
Projected to hit .240/.308/.408 in 2016, Conger will be an upgrade at the plate over Rivera’s unexpected drop to .178/.213/.275. If Rivera can return to his 2013 and 2014 levels of approximately .250/.300/.380, the Rays could get a significant boost in offense from their catchers next season.
However, the most intriguing play would be if Casali (vs LHP) and Conger (vs RHP) split time. Casali managed a decent .240/.313/.552 vs LHP in 2015, something that would pair very well with Conger’s .279/.353/.538 vs RHP.
The fact that Conger’s bat could also be used well off-the-bench due to his switch-hitting capabilities also makes him a candidate for a bench role and for the Rays to consider carrying 3 catchers. With Conger’s game-changing power, it’s a definite possibility.
What I like most about this deal is that it improves the Rays slugging abilities significantly without costing the team an arm and a leg (pun intended). They’re getting a player who can significantly improve his value at a minimal cost to the Rays, and who has outstanding makeup and character, something you can never have enough of.
Hank Conger got to watch the Astros grow as a team to become a true playoff contender. He witnessed how they got there and can bring some of that youth and enthusiasm to the Rays lineup in 2016. His switch-hitting abilities are a definite asset, and he’ll get every opportunity to prove himself so long as he’s healthy and performs as his skills tell us he can. This was a great addition by the Rays, one that minimizes risk and maximizes potential value. It also sets the course for an improved performance overall behind the plate for the Rays, something the team could have used in 2015.