Spring countdown discussion: Catcher

February 2, 2010 | 3:59 pm | 19  

One of the few positions that created some drama for the Colorado Rockies this offseason has been talked about at length here on the site. But it’s as good a place to start daily discussions about what the Rockies are going to look like when spring training opens later this month.

Who’s starting: Chris Iannetta, for better or worse. Iannetta was benched for the Rockies’ September run, making only one dramatic appearance with a game-winning pinch-hit home run in the 11th inning against the Brewers on Sept. 29. His batting average in 2009 was never anything to brag about, but he was the Rockies’ top home-run threat for much of the early part of the season before landing on the disabled list. When he returned, his season was pretty much downhill until he finally lost his job to Yorvit Torrealba. Whether this is the year Iannetta finally emerges as the catcher the Rockies have long thought he could be has been the subject of much debate here already. The Rockies believe it his time, and gave Iannetta a three-year extension. The good news: the contract is reasonable money for a backup if that is what Iannetta again becomes.

Who’s backing up: The Rockies made a serious offer to retain Torrealba but refused to budge on the reported $400,000 difference between what they were willing to pay Torrealba and what he wanted. So the Rockies let their former starting catcher, whose greatest month as a Rockie was likely his last, walk and turned to Miguel Olivo on a one-year deal with an option for 2011. Olivo gives the Rockies more power from their backup, a slight upgrade defensively (at least throwing the ball) and a downgrade in getting on base. Even if Iannetta struggles again, the difference between Torrealba and Olivo probably won’t be felt offensively. Olivo is not really better or worse than Torrealba, just different. The greater impact would come in handling pitchers.

Who’s in the picture: The Rockies have a pair of Pauls — Phillips and LoDuca — signed to minor-league contracts as insurance and possibly mentors to some young catchers coming up through the system. Phillips filled in admirably first for Torrealba, when he left the team in May, and later Iannetta, who went on the disabled list around the same time. Neither Phillips nor LoDuca is someone the Rockies would particularly want to see in their starting lineup this season.

Who’s in the future: Mike McKenry is on the 40-man roster and is the prospect closest to the majors. Whether he can be an everyday catcher in the major leagues is still an open question, but he could be a solid backup with his defense. He started 2009 slowly at Double-A Tulsa before coming on and having a solid season. He likely isn’t in the picture for 2010 beyond a potential September callup or a rash of injuries. Behind McKenry are Wilin Rosario, who should move up to Double-A at 21 years old, and Jordan Pacheco, a converted infielder who had a great season in low Single-A Asheville and will move up a level to Modesto.

Discuss: We’ve debated the relative merits of Iannetta vs. Torrealba or Torrealba vs. Olivo or Iannetta vs. Olivo all winter. Some believe Iannetta has been given a chance and failed. Some believe he showed promise last season and is about to blossom. Rather than debate whether Iannetta should be the starting catcher — it’s his job to lose, anyway — let’s consider another angle. Assume more of the same from Iannetta this season: sub.-240 batting average, 15-20 home runs, 55-65 RBI while batting somewhere between the sixth and eighth spots in the batting order. Can the Rockies remain competitive in the NL West without noticeable offensive improvement from Iannetta or will the Rockies’ season depend largely on Iannetta improving his game? And what does an improved Iannetta look like anyway? Is .260+, 20-25 home runs, 75-85 RBI enough?

Coming Wednesday: First base.

19 Comments »

  • Rich M | February 2, 2010 | 4:23 pm

    If Iannetta could consistently hit for at least .265 average, 20 hrs, and 80 rbis – that would be great and more than enough to keep the Rockies in contention. To be honest though the Rockies catcher for the next decade is not yet on the roster at either the MLB or Minor levels.

    Drafting and developing an elite catcher for the future should be a Rockie draft priority – really soon! Also since catchers rarely start more than 100 games in a season, it makes a lot of sense to have either the starter or backup come with a left handed (or switch hitting) bat.

  • Shane | February 2, 2010 | 4:33 pm

    I am quite frankly perplexed why the Rockies and Rockies nation think the Ianetta is/was a failure. The only downside he had stat wise was his batting average. Which was awful, don’t get me wrong, but he still had an OBP of .344. His Isolated Power Numbers, At Bats per Home Run, and Runs Created per 27 outs was at an elite level for catchers last year. Based on the raw numbers his IsoP and AB/HR numbers were better than Mauer’s. I don’t think Ianetta is better than Joe Mauer, but I thin Ianetta is a better than average catcher. That was definately with a relative small data sample last year with only 350 Plate Appearances, but those are the numbers we have to deal with last year. Behind the plate he seemed to be able to handle the pitchers just fine, and he was good defensively. He also has a much better arm than Torrealba’s very weak arm.

    One of the few misses Jim Tracy had last year was Ianetta in my opinion. His main weakness was batting average, but he made up for it at the plate with his ability to get on base and his power when he made contact.

  • Steve Foster | February 2, 2010 | 4:45 pm

    If Iannetta’s batting average in 2009 had stayed around the .264 he hit in 2008, there wouldn’t be any dicussion. Even with the 40-point drop in batting average, his .344 OBP was almost identical to Torrealba’s .351 and his OPS was higher. He’s a fine No. 8 hitter at worst, always capable of a good at-bat even when he’s struggling. The Rockies need much greater improvement offensively at second base or third base than they need at catcher. Iannetta keeps the Rockies competitive even without a substantial improvement, but I expect to see his numbers up around .260, 20 HR, 70 RBI.

    I think the Rockies catcher of the future (although maybe not the next decade) could be in the system now. Wilin Rosario is a real prospect. He might not be a Joe Mauer or Matt Wieters, but there aren’t many of those sort of catchers around.

  • reader f/k/a Mike | February 2, 2010 | 4:48 pm

    “I am quite frankly perplexed why the Rockies and Rockies nation think the Ianetta is/was a failure. ”

    well, the fellow who posted before you wants a consistent .265/20HR/80RBI line out him.

    So I guess Iannetta needs to be an all-star or we throw him out on his ear.

    On a serious note, though, he went into a deep slump, and he hits for a low avg and watches pitches anyway. That’s too much for a lot of people. This was the source of endless debates last year. It was amazing.

  • Redhawk | February 2, 2010 | 4:49 pm

    the question to me really isn’t just Iannetta, but Stewart, Iannetta, Barmes + pitcher. At times last year, the Rockies had 4 spots in a row just not producing. Throw in Hawpe’s decline at the end of the season sometimes it felt like 5 out of the 9 spots had hitting “issues”.

    I don’t expect Iannetta to have the split he had last year with low BA, with a lot of homers, and a lot of walks. Last year was an oddly extreme split from his BA to his OBP. I expect both to come closer together…ie more hits, and few walks, as pitcher work in the strike zone.

    If Iannetta rebounds to just his career average numbers (which is a fairly small sample size still), the Rockies should be fine, for production from a catcher.

    (hoping I don’t get banned here too for talking about Iannetta)

  • Steve Foster | February 2, 2010 | 4:57 pm

    RedHawk, that’s a better way to put it. From about mid-July on last year, the lower half of the Rockies lineup really struggled until Torrealba got hot and took over. The Rockies success this season isn’t dependent on Iannetta getting better, but getting more production out of the 5-9 spots as a whole.

  • Elliotlc | February 2, 2010 | 7:16 pm

    Compared to the elite cathcers he still has a way to go but if you look at the options other teams have the Rockies have a great young talent. We have very good depth as well. Olivo and Ianetta are going to be a great one and two at catcher

  • Karl | February 2, 2010 | 9:13 pm

    5. .270 .360 obs 24hr 95rbi
    6. .252 .365 obs 21hr 72rbi
    7. .262 .333 obs 25hr 80rbi
    8. .255 .325 obs 18hr 70rbi

    what do guys think, if that’s Hawpe, Iannetta, Stewart, and Barmes? I think that’s a winning combo. If Iannetta can hit in the 6 hole and get on base like that, that is very dangerous lineup. Cutting down on the strikeouts will be a key for this lineup to succeed. If Iannetta can start 110 games or more then he can feasibly achieve these numbers. He might have needed the change with Yorvit no longer there so that this can now help him with his mental side of the game and perhaps he will achieve his potential. This is really good for most catchers. If we as fans can have this production from our catcher and our 5-8 hitters in whole, we should be esctatic.

    How he can handle the pitching staff is also an issue I would like to know more about it. Anyone have an opinion on how well his repoire is with the current staff?

    I am a fan of him and hope he does well, but from what I am reading from others opinions here is that their is a good plan in place for backups and also looking at the plan towards the future. Perhaps a draft of a high prospect of a catcher would be good next draft.

  • NWagner | February 2, 2010 | 10:11 pm

    Is Orlando Hudson out of the question? I agree that the only reason the rockies need offense from their catcher–which is very rare and expensive– is because they got no offense from second or third base last year. I am willing to wait and see on Stewart but Barmes did not have a single good at bat in the second half or in the playoffs.

    I would rather the rockies have taken the money they spent on guys like Melvin Mora, Tim Redding, and Miguel OlIvo, and apply that to a guy like Hudson who could be a great consistent lead off hitter and still a great defensive player, plus some good veteran leadership for guys like EY jr. and the rest of the young rockies players. I know he’s pretty pricy but he would do more for this team than all those other guys combined. Why did the rockies sign Tim Redding anyways?

  • C Thistle | February 3, 2010 | 8:31 am

    I think Iannetta will have a great year. He comes across as a very thoughtful guy (which we know doesn’t always help in baseball). By being named the clear number 1, I think he will thrive.

    He started so fast last year at the WBC that I wonder if it didn’t throw him off for the year. At least during that exhibition he showed that he can hit for power and average.

    He is turning 27 this Spring; he is at the prime age to hit his stride.

  • ProgMatinee | February 3, 2010 | 10:05 am

    I agree with the comments that its really 6-8 that needs to step up. I love Ianetta’s patience at the plate, but it does little good if Barmes comes in after him and either strikes out or grounds into a DP.

    Even though Ianetta didn’t “earn” a higher spot in the order than Stewart or Smith, if he had someone like that behind him it would really reward his patience and get him home. And on the other side of the coin it does little good for Stewart or Smith to hit a double just to have Ianetta follow with a walk.

    I think I’d try:

    Cargo
    Fowler
    Helton
    Tulo
    Hawpe
    Ianetta
    Stewart
    Barmes

  • Liz | February 3, 2010 | 10:12 am

    I agree, Iannetta will do just fine this year and shore up the bottom of the line up. Hopefully the rest will not allow other teams to pitch around him.

  • JR | February 3, 2010 | 12:26 pm

    Steve, what has Iannetta done this off season to improve his swing? Additional coaching? New plate approach, i.e., Toe tap? He’s shown he has power but consistency is what is lacking.

  • Derrek | February 3, 2010 | 12:34 pm

    I am a big Iannetta fan. I love his patience at the plate, which I think bodes well for him turning his average around. I can’t stand watching Barmes swing at every last pitch whether it’s a foot outside or right down the middle. Iannetta no doubt will hit over 20 homers if he plays. The key is his average. I think that average can get to the .260 range and if it does, we are going to have a great catcher on our hands. .260 with an on base percentage in the high 3′s and 20+ homers with 75+ rbi would be awesome. I think he is capable and I think he will deliver. His approach is why I think that. He can tell the difference between a ball and a strike, unlike Barmes. Therefore, he will rebound.

  • Rich M | February 3, 2010 | 1:13 pm

    Higher on base percentage is really the key for Iannetta and the bottom half of the lineup – just as Derrek suggests above. That can be accomplished by achieving more hits or/and more walks. Despite my earlier comment that the Rocks should draft an elite catcher for the future, I still think Iannetta is a solid and even slightly above average catcher.

    It will be very interesting to see if Iannetta, Barmes and Stewart change their individual approach at all at the plate. Iannetta needs to be more aggressive, Barmes needs to be more patient, and Stewart needs to make more contact. The trouble is that is a lot easier for me to say, than it is for them to accomplish. However, if they don’t make the needed plate adjustments then that’s why the Rocks have guys like Olivo, EY2, and Mora, respectively.

  • reader f/k/a Mike | February 4, 2010 | 9:11 am

    “How he can handle the pitching staff is also an issue I would like to know more about it. Anyone have an opinion on how well his repoire is with the current staff?”

    Reports on this sort of thing tend to be difficult for us to verify, but even so, I’ve don’t remember anything good or bad.

    Pitcher records with catchers can fluctuate year to year, but over the last few years it doesn’t seem like pitchers (even the native Spanish speakers) did worse with Iannetta than Torrealba.

  • Andrew T. Fisher | February 4, 2010 | 11:45 am

    Statistically, Iannetta’s walk and K rate didn’t really change much from 2008 to 2009. What DID change was his approach. Even though his pitches per plate appearance stayed near a team high, he was constantly waiting for the perfect pitch to hit a long ball. This is the most telling statistic:

    In 2008, Iannetta hit fly balls on 40.7% of his batted balls with a line-drive rate of 20.1%.
    In 2009, he hit flyballs on 52.1% of his batted balls with a line drive rate of 16.1%. That 52.1% would place him 4th in MLB if he had enough ABs

    Unless all your flyballs go over a wall, generally flyballs result in outs the most frequently. He was clearly looping his swing and becoming the ultimate all-or-nothing hitter. He clearly has the ability (2008) to limit that, but I have no idea if he and Don Baylor are working on this.

  • reader f/k/a Mike | February 4, 2010 | 12:47 pm

    People realize that teams usually have problems with the lower spots in the batting order, right? That’s where you put your bad hitters.

    Is there any reason to believe the Rockies have more trouble there? Eyeballing the splits, it looks like the Rockies 5-8 slots did a smidgen better relative to the NL average than slots 1-4.

    I think the biggest challenge for the offense will be Tulo and CarGo maintaining their 2nd half gains. If they drop back to what the rest of their careers suggest, that’s a lot for Iannetta and Stewart to make up.

  • ProgMatinee | February 4, 2010 | 1:46 pm

    there is room for improvement and getting that improvement isn’t out of the realm of possibility from the bottom of the lineup. If we got the 2008 performance from Ianetta in 2009 there’s no telling where the Rox would have finished. Quite possibly their first division title! Same goes for Barmes. He’s got it in him to be a strong player, as a much needed right handed bat in the Philly series I expect more than going O-fer in 14 ABs. 2 or 3 hits scattered around in that series from Barmes and who knows if we lose those 1 run games.

    I think a little more consistency from Barmes, Stewart and Ianetta would improve us by a long way. I’m not expecting all-star perfomances from them.