Originally posted on Taking Bad Schotz  |  Last updated 12/1/11

After Bengie Molina moved on to bigger and better things at the conclusion of the 2005 season, the Angels were left without a starting catcher. They utilized the tandem of Jose Molina and Mike Napoli for the next year and a half, before trading Molina to the Yankees. The trade cleared the way for top prospect Jeff Mathis, who was widely viewed as the Angels’ catcher of the future. From 2008-2010, Mathis hit a composite .200/.264/.303 but amassed 818 plate appearances because Mike Scioscia loved what he brought to the table defensively. Napoli was traded after the 2010 season, opening the door for Mathis and the Angels’ new catcher of the future, Hank Conger, to split time. However, after hitting .214/.297/.357 through the middle of July, Conger was banished to AAA Salt Lake City. Mathis was left to assume the majority of starts behind the plate and rewarded the Angels with a .174/.225/.259 line over 281 plate appearances for the season. As a result of Mathis’ offensive ineptitude and Conger’s struggles, the Angels decided to acquire Chris Iannetta, which marks a stark contrast to the club’s recent history of resistance to letting an offense first catcher run away with the starting job.

After hitting 20 home runs in a measly 227 plate appearances in 2008, it seemed that Mike Napoli would be primed for a huge offensive year in 2009. Mike Scioscia had other plans however, and gave Napoli only 432 plate appearances. Napoli produced once again, with 20 home runs and a triple slash of .272/.350/.492 but it became obvious that if he were to establish himself as an everyday player it would be with another organization. The Angels couldn’t resist themselves from Mathis’ defense, regardless of the fact that he was an almost automatic out at the plate. It didn’t help Napoli’s cause that he posted subpar caught stealing numbers in three of his five seasons with the Angels. Napoli was pressed into more regular duty in 2010, playing first base after Kendry Morales broke his leg while celebrating a walk-off home run. However, a BABIP below Napoli’s career norms resulted in a down year offensively. His off year combined with Conger’s emergence made Napoli expendable to the Angels and he was traded in the offseason to Toronto as part of the deal for Vernon Wells.

Chris Iannetta’s career path is eerily similar to that of Napoli. In 2008, he busted out with a triple slash of .264/.390/.505 and 18 home runs over 407 plate appearances. Despite the fact that he took a step back offensively, Iannetta still managed an OPS of .804 in 2009. However, Jim Tracy and the Rockies front office didn’t seem to notice, and Miguel Olivo was signed to split time with Iannetta in 2010 despite the fact that he signed a three-year contract to buy out his arbitration years. If Olivo’s signing wasn’t enough to indicate Iannetta’s unwelcome presence with the Rockies, his demotion to AAA at the end of April was. Recalled about a month later, Iannetta struggled in what was mostly a backup role and finished the season with a .197/.318/.383 line in 223 plate appearances. Iannetta was the starter last season, and posted a solid .785 OPS in 426 plate appearances. The writing was on the wall that he wasn’t part of the team’s future though after Willin Rosario took a large chunk of playing time away from Iannetta during September. It became inevitable that Iannetta would not be spending this season in Colorado once several reports were published that the team had heavy interest in Ramon Hernandez.

The fact that the Angels acquired Iannetta is not surprising because they received no offensive production from their catchers last season. It is surprising however, because of the presence of Hank Conger. Conger is a switch hitter who possesses solid offensive potential, especially from a catcher. Last year, Keith Law ranked Conger the #62 prospect in baseball and wrote, “If he doesn’t beat out Jeff Mathis for a roster spot, there’s something very wrong with the Angels’ decision-making process.” As I wrote earlier, Conger struggled while platooning with Mathis and it seems that his stock has fallen within the organization. After Mathis’ truly terrible year offensively, it looked as if Conger would take over full time this season, despite his struggles last year. However, after the Angels acquired Iannetta, Conger is without a starting job and will probably be reduced to backing up the former Rockie.

After being traded to the Rangers, playing the best defense of his career and posting a phenomenal .320/.414./.631 triple slash with some postseason heroics sprinkled in, Mike Napoli made Angels look pretty stupid last season. When the Angels’ catching triumvirate of Jeff Mathis, Hank Conger and Bobby Wilson posted a season of ghastly offensive ineptitude, it became clear that the Angels would have to abandon their defense-first catching mentality. The team’s acquisition of Chris Iannetta is essentially an admission that it made a mistake trading Napoli in the first place. To make matters worse, there have been several indications that the Angels are not planning to tender Mathis a contract before the deadline in less than two weeks. Interestingly enough, the Rockies apparently have interest in Mathis as a backup to Ramon Hernandez.

The Angels hope that Iannetta will flourish in a new environment, much like Napoli did with the Rangers. However, Angels fans should temper their excitement. Iannetta has severe home/road splits that would indicate he was helped out somewhat by the friendly confines of Coors Field. Angels Stadium is a pitcher’s park, so Iannetta might not have the kind of breakout offensive year that many think he is capable of. While Iannetta will probably never hit for a high average due to low contact rates, if he is given regular playing time, there is no reason he can’t post an OPS in the mid .800 to low .900 range. If Iannetta has a good season, Angels GM Jerry Dipoto will look like a saint for acquiring him and the Rockies, much like the Angels after trading Napoli, will look quite foolish. It is quite possible though, that Iannetta struggles throughout the season and the Angels look dumb for letting their best offensive option at catcher and former top prospect Hank Conger toil away as a backup.

-Cohen

 

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