Spring Training Storylines: The back-up catcher battle

Hank CongerWhen it comes to pre-season position battles, none come with less intrigue and importance than a battle for the back-up catcher’s job.  That statement is true for 29 of the 30 teams in baseball.  You’ll never guess who the exception to the rule is.

Just because Chris Iannetta has been brought in to replace the maligned Jeff Mathis doesn’t mean that the Angels’ backstop drama is at an end.  We know that Iannetta tops the catching depth chart now, but what does that really mean?  Will he get 140 starts or will he get 85?  Only Mike Scioscia knows what the plan is and he is the one responsible for letting Jeff Mathis spend so much time haunting the catcher’s box for the last few years.

What makes this roster spot competition so curious is that Scioscia has before him an opportunity to recreate a similar catching duo dynamic to the one that he has had the last few years with Mathis and Mike Napoli.  In this scenario, Iannetta plays the role of Napoli, the catcher with big power potential, strong plate discipline and question marks about his defense.  That, of course, means we have to have someone playing Mathis.  Enter Bobby Wilson.

Like Mathis, Wilson’s bat is decidedly weak but his defensive reputation is a strong one, especially in the eyes of the great and mighty Sosh.  In Bobby’s defense, his bat may not be as horrific as that of Jeff Mathis, which is most definitely daming him with feint praise.  Make no mistake, Wilson has the ability to perform better offensively than Mathis, but not by a whole lot.  The problem is that his offensive ability may not matter.

In the same way that Wilson probably can’t be as bad as Mathis, Iannetta probably can’t be as good as Mike Napoli.  We all just saw what Napoli could do with his MVP-like season in Texas.  That simply isn’t something Iannetta is capable of.  He can hit homers and draw walks, but he has some major contact issues that will prevent him from ever reaching those heights.  Unfortunately, what Chris can do is find his way into Scioscia’s defensive doghouse just like Napoli did.  Iannetta has a better reputation than Napoli, but he has struggled with consistency.  With the high defensive standards Scioscia carries, that could spell trouble.

Not to scare everyone, but I think we can all agree that it is pretty easy to envision a scenario in which Iannetta falls into a defensive slump and steadily starts losing his grip on the primary catcher slot.  Wilson still won’t hit, but Scioscia knows he will always be there as a defensive safety chute and we know that Scioscia won’t hesitate to reach for the ripcord and use that safety chute at the first sign of trouble.  This, of course, assumes that Wilson wins the back-up job, which is far from a lock considering that he has made just three appearances this spring.

Hanging around in the background of the discussion this whole time has been Hank Conger.  The general assumption has long been that Hank is destined for the minors since he can play everyday there and work on his defense.  However, Wilson’s nagging spring injuries have created an opening and for the second straight year, Hank could be in line to surprisingly secure a spot on the Opening Day roster.  In a weird way, that could be the best thing for the Angels catching situation.

Iannetta and Wilson boast complementary skillsets, but Iannetta and Conger are more or less the same.  Both are supposed to be offensive-minded catchers, but neither are sure things.  In particular, Iannetta tends to do the bulk of his damage against left-handed pitching (let’s set aside the Coors Field effect for the time being).  Conger, on the other hand (literally), is a better hitter against right-handed pitching.  Carrying Hank as the back-up catcher affords the Halos the chance to let Iannetta maintain the starting job without a threat of reverting to the bad old days of Mathis.  Moreover, it also gives them a chance to keep Conger in the big leagues where the team can get a more first-hand assessment on his defensive progress and possibly even his readiness to take over the primary catching duties in 2013.  Thanks to the potential platoon arrangment, there is even a chance that Conger could unseat Iannetta this season.  Since Conger can actually hit, that is a potentiality that most Angel fans can most definitely live with.

The only catch in all of this is that Bobby Wilson is out of option, meaning the Angels have to let him go if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster.  Considering that he has been carried as a third catcher the last two seasons specifically to avoid such a fate, that seems pretty unlikely.  Not only would the Halos be losing Wilson, they’d be losing their organizational catching depth.  If something happens to Iannetta or Conger, the Angels’ farm system has only prospects that aren’t nearly ready or older players who aren’t nearly good enough to be in the majors.

Factoring all that in, this seems like it has been a pretty long-winded way of saying that Bobby Wilson has all but won the job.

Garrett Wilson

About Garrett Wilson

Garrett Wilson is the founder and Supreme Overlord of Monkeywithahalo.com and editor at The Outside Corner. He's an Ivy League graduate, but not from one of the impressive ones. You shouldn't make him angry. You wouldn't like him when he is angry.