An innocent September call-up? Not for Hank Conger it isn’t. The stud prospect’s arrival in Anaheim isn’t just a novelty act, it is quite possibly the beginning of the apocalypse for the Angels’ overflowing catcher depth chart.
Top prospect or fourth horseman of the catcher apocalypse? You decide!
Normally, calling up a top prospect in September to have a quick cup of coffee in the majors to give him a taste of what big league ball is really like wouldn’t be a big deal. On the surface, that certainly appears to be the case for Hank Conger. Dig a little bit deeper though, and one can see how all the churning of the depth chart at the catcher position that preceded Conger could result in his presence setting off a chain reaction that could leave Mike Scioscia’s options at the position looking drastically different next year.
Poor baby-faced Hank, he is walking right into the middle of a highly combustible situation in Anaheim and he doesn’t even realize that he is the match that could set the whole thing off. On paper, he is the fourth catcher on the depth chart, but the guys in front of him don’t seem to be long for this world.
Even before Conger got called up, it was a forgone conclusion that Mike Napoli was entering his last few weeks as a member of the LA Angels. Mike Scioscia has never been able to tolerate his inconsistent defense behind the plate nor has he ever appreciated his powerful bat enough to overlook those defensive deficiencies. Now Scioscia needs some convincing to even let Napoli play regularly at first base, despite the lack of viable options there. It is going to take an act of God to convince Scioscia and the Angel front office to pony up the arbitration award Napoli is due if he is going to remain an Angel in 2011.
As much as Scioscia dislikes Napoli, he just can’t get enough of Jeff Mathis. But Jeff’s historically tragic ineptitude with the bat in his hands is just a few steps shy of sparking a full-fledged riot amongst Angel fans if Mathis is still allowed to handle the lion’s share of catching duties beyond this season.
Then there is Bobby Wilson, a perfectly likable young catcher who has impressed the coaching staff with his work behind the plate but left much to be desired at the plate. In other words, he is kind of a poor man’s Jeff Mathis (which I think, technically, makes him homeless). Wilson, at a minimum, has all the makings of a half-decent back-up catcher if paired with the right platoon mate.
Therein lies the rub. The Halos may love to dump Mike Napoli, but can a team with such an already anemic offensive attack really afford to enter the 2011 season with Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson as their catching tandem? It would be like some sort of twisted competition to see which player could hit the worst and still earn regular playing time. The mere thought of that situation sends shivers down my spine and likely does the same to Tony Reagins, possibly even to the point that he would hang onto Mike Napoli, even if he really doesn’t want to.
That is, unless, some other strong-hitting catcher were to come along and supplant Napoli. Enter Hank Conger.
Hank has always been coveted for his powerful switch-hitting bat. While his meager 11 home runs in the thin of the PCL this season certainly don’t show that power, the general consensus is that it will come around in due time, a la Kendry Morales, who also showed only average power in the minors. The real question marks for Conger have been whether or not he can field the position well enough and stay healthy long enough to justify keeping him at catcher.
By all accounts, Conger has been acquitting himself rather nicely behind the plate this season and put to rest many of those concerns about his defense. He still isn’t a Gold Glove caliber catcher or even close to it, but as long as he isn’t a liability, that should be good enough for the Angel front office to deem him ready for the bigs. Mike Scioscia, however, will take some real convincing, which is why this next month will be so important for Conger. While fans are going to be excited to see the kid hit, what we should all really pay attention to is his defensive work, because that is what the great and mighty Sosh will be focusing on. It doesn’t matter if Conger hits .500 with eight home runs this month, if he can’t live up to Scioscia’s defensive standards, he is going to be starting next season in Triple-A again. However, if he proves that he can handle the pitching staff, display good fundamentals blocking balls and throw out the occasional base stealer all while not totally embarrassing himself (a la Brandon Wood) with his bat and he will have put himself right into the forefront of the conversation for who will be the team’s starting catcher in 2011, sealing Napoli’s fate in the process.
If Conger really impresses, he might even be able to convince the Angel front office to jettison Jeff Mathis as well. Conger is the perfect counterpart to the defensive-minded Bobby Wilson, and that duo would be much cheaper to have around than the Miff Matholi combo of the last few years. The only caveat here being that Conger’s historic fragility is likely to cause the Angels to hedge their bets and keep Mathis around so they have at least one reliable(?) veteran catcher on the roster should injury strike.
And, if you think about it, having a Conger-Mathis tandem wouldn’t really be all that bad of a situation. Having Mathis around as a guy that Scioscia trusts would allow Conger to be brought along a little more slowly in a fashion that allows him to still work on his game at the major league level while also protecting his confidence. Lest we forget that Conger will be the tender young age of 23 years on Opening Day next season, an awfully young age to be thrown into the big league fire at such a crucial defensive position. Sure, fans will still groan about wanting Conger’s superior bat in the lineup rather than Mathis’ weak stick, but it would be far more palatable given Conger’s youth and inexperience.
Of course, this entire conversation is moot if Scioscia refuses to play Conger more than a handful of games before the season is over, a very real possibility since he basically has three full-time catchers and one part-time catcher that he needs to try and keep happy for another month. Getting Mathis, Napoli and Wilson the playing time they need to stay focused while also trying to give a valid audition to Conger won’t be easy, especially if Scioscia decides to be stubborn in his dedication to Jeff Mathis. Ideally, Hank would get to start roughly ten games before the season is out so that Scioscia can really get a feel for what the youngster can do. Will that happen? I sure hope so, but when it comes to Scioscia and his precious catchers, there is no real way of knowing what the future holds.