Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Could There Be Hope Behind The Plate in 2014?

Yes please!
If it's true that last off-season J.P. Arencibia received some sort of assurance that he wouldn't be traded amidst swirling rumours, early signs suggest that he shouldn't be nearly so comfortable in his job heading into 2014. I won't rehash J.P.'s historically woeful 2013 performance here, but suffice to say that only wearers of the most rose coloured glasses could feel good about the prospect of going into 2014 with Arencibia as the club's starting catcher.

So, unfortunately for his many fans that apparently still exist for some reason (but oh so fortunately for those of us that are bigger fans of winning at baseball) it should come as no surprise that the Blue Jays are rumoured to be looking hard at a number of potential upgrades on the trade market. While he may remain with the club in a backup role, I think we should probably get used to seeing a whole lot less of JPA going forward.

Most recently, the Jays have been linked to Angels catchers Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger. A couple of weeks ago, they were also rumoured to be interested in the Washington Nationals' Wilson Ramos. Quite frankly, the only thing that needs to be said is, "Do it already!". Obviously that's an oversimplification of a complex situation requiring in-depth analysis of past performance, clever projection of future performance, and shrewd assessment of the value of various assets, both financial and human, but... nuts to that. Do it already!


The switch hitting Conger is the younger and cheaper of the two Angels backstops. He'll only be 26 in January, and will be under team control until the end of the 2017 season. 2013 was his best offensive season so far, and saw him post a .249/.310/.403 line in 92 games. That was good for an essentially league average wRC+ of 99, which is perfectly acceptable for a catcher with non-elite but still passable defense.

The problem is, 2013 is the first year in which he's shown much of anything at the plate, and he still hasn't caught 100 games in a season at the MLB level. He's got the the prospect pedigree and minor league track record to suggest that he might be a very good catcher in the long run, but if he regresses even a little bit from this past year's offensive numbers and the 1 fWAR he provided the Angels, he could wind up being a very minor upgrade over Arencibia in the immediate term. 

The fact that he's still working for chicken feed has a lot of value though, and if the flexibility his salary would afford the team (compared to Iannetta's $10.5 million until 2015) allows them to upgrade in other areas it might be worth the gamble. However, as Matt Klaasen suggests in his excellent piece on the situation, given his salary and years of team control it's entirely possible that the Angels would demand more for Conger than they would for Iannetta, despite the fact that Iannetta is currently the better of the two.

The right-handed Iannetta has a very different offensive profile than Conger. While Conger profiles as something similar to what JPA was hoped to be, a low-contact, low-OBP fly ball hitter with pop, Iannetta goes about his business with a lot more patience and a discerning eye. Last season's .225/.358/.372 line pretty much tells the story of a low-average hitter without a lot of pop who, by virtue of a 17% walk rate, still manages to be a very tough out. Offensively he's pretty underrated, as his 111 wRC+ was good for 7th among catchers with at least 250 PAs. That's pretty attractive for a guy who is also reasonably well regarded defensively. 

Where Conger would be a gamble with significant upside, Iannetta has to be considered a known commodity at this point. At 30 years old, he's been an average to above average bat every season save one since 2008, so it's probably unlikely that his on-base skills will desert him while he's under contract for the next two seasons. His contract is also a good value from a $/WAR perspective, if he can continue to be the approximately 2 fWAR player he's been for the past few years when he's been healthy. That being said, it's a lot more than Conger or Ramos make, and that has to be a consideration since, as I wrote here, even if Rogers is willing to increase payroll (and I think they have to be), after raises to players already under contract money could still be tight this off-season. 

Ramos might combine the best of both Angels catchers with his years of cheap team control (he's not a free agent until after 2016) and his more proven bat. In 238 big league games he's posted a .270/.320/.445 line for a 109 wRC+, which is much better than the 85 wRC+ Conger has posted over his 171 big league games. Ramos isn't known for his defense, but his bat and affordability would allow the Jays to live with that reality quite comfortably. Of course those are also the reasons he would almost certainly demand the largest outlay of prospect capital to acquire. 

Of the three recently rumoured possibilities, I'd favour whichever of the Angels backstops can be had for the least prospect return. Ramos would require too much in a trade (unless it becomes a bigger deal with more pieces involved), and I'm kind of at a point where I would much rather see the Blue Jays throw good money after bad than good prospects after bad, as long as Rogers allows them to do so. Both would be significant upgrades on what the Jays currently have, and if you consider Iannetta's probable superiority and Conger's affordability and years of team control to be a wash, both might be attainable for a similar price tag. It may not be entirely rational, but given the fact that pretty much none of the Jays' gambles have gone in their favour recently, I'd probably be more comfortable with Iannetta than I would be with betting on Conger showing continued improvement. Either way, it would be an almost certain upgrade, and the Angels are most definitely buying what the Blue Jays can afford to sell, relievers and back-end starters.

So... yeah. Do it already!

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