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Iannetta’s Injury Leaves Angels Thin At Catcher

The Angels haven’t had a glorious start to the season. The team’s starting pitching has sparkled, and the defense has been solid, but the hitting and bullpen work have left much to be desired. The former will be tested over the next two months, as starting catcher Chris Iannetta will be out with an fractured right wrist.

Iannetta has always garnered less attention than is warranted because of his low batting average. For the season, he is hitting just .197, and since his full-season Major League debut in 2007, he is hitting .232. But in that timespan, he has been the 13th-most valuable catcher by WAR, despite the fact that he is just one of two catchers in that top 15 with less than 500 games played (Matt Wieters being the other). He’s not an outstanding defender, but he did set a career-best last season in caught stealing percentage. If you look solely at offense though, Iannetta stands out even more — his .345 wOBA since 2007 is tied for seventh-best among qualified catchers. In short, Iannetta is a lot more valuable than his paltry batting average would indicate.

He has come out of the gate a little slow this season, but even with that, his wOBA ranks seventh out of 14 Angels, and only Maicer Izturis has a better walk rate. Of course, this early in the season, a handful of plate appearances can make a big difference. While Iannetta heads to the disabled list with a .309 wOBA, it stood at .329 before he gamely played three games this week with the fractured wrist before finally succumbing to the pain. Not surprisingly, he didn’t tally one hit in those three games, though he did manage to draw a pair of walks. In fact, he only managed to hit one ball out of the infield, which isn’t all that surprising. No one tried to steal off of Iannetta during the three-game set (perhaps the Angels’ pitchers were more cognizant of throwing over to first), but he did have to make a throw to first on a double play, which he handled with aplomb. Still, it’s hard to hit or play with a fractured wrist, especially as a catcher, and the Angels will now have to find a way to win without Iannetta.

Anaheim would have much less of a predicament if Hank Conger were healthy, but he is dealing with his own issues. As noted here, Conger hasn’t played since April 21st due to a sprained elbow. While Conger did not initially think it would be a big problem, he hasn’t played since, and has not yet resumed throwing either. Presumably, he is not an option for at least another couple of weeks. In the interim, the Angels will likely rely on backup Bobby Wilson, though one of Robinzon Diaz, John Hester or Alberto Rosario will be called up as well. It seemed that Rosario, who is the youngest of that trio, might have turned a corner after he posted a .358 wOBA in repeating High-A in 2010, but he hasn’t registered a wOBA better than .269 since. Diaz and Hester have both seen time in the Majors — Diaz with the Blue Jays and Pirates and Hester with the D-backs — but neither has accumulated 150 big-league plate appearances. Hester has been in the Majors more recently than has Diaz, but since he was only signed by the Angels on April 22nd, he won’t be as familiar with the Angels’ pitchers as Diaz or Rosario, who caught them during Spring Training.

No matter who gets the call though, they will likely be relegated to day-game-following-night-game duty behind Wilson. Wilson has spent all but five games during the past two seasons in the Majors, but thanks to mythical beast of ancient lore Jeff Mathis, he didn’t play much — he totaled just 233 PA in the two seasons. In that time, Wilson has displayed a decent batting eye — his 7.7 BB% ranked in the top-half of Angels hitters the past two seasons, and was either at or slightly above league average. He showed little else though. After popping four homers in 2010, he only slugged one last season, and he doesn’t project to hit many more given a larger sample. In short, if Conger can’t make it back soon, the Halos may be better served trying to make a trade. While Iannetta is expected back this season, hitters often lose power when they return from wrist injuries, and that could go double for Iannetta, as a catcher puts more stress on his throwing arm in the field than any other position player.

Who might be out there? Dioner Navarro is toiling away in the Reds’ system, but then, there’s a reason for that. The White Sox have two solid catchers in A.J. Pierzynski and Tyler Flowers, perhaps one of them could be a target. J.P. Arencibia wasn’t real pleased with Blue Jays manager John Farrell earlier this week, and while Ken Rosenthal reported this week that the team is looking to trade him, these things tend to evolve quickly. John Baker isn’t playing much in San Diego, and with Yasmani Grandal on the horizon, the Padres could probably part ways with Baker. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Lavarnway, the Red Sox have more catchers than they can roster — perhaps Shoppach or Lavarnway could be had for the right pitcher. Or maybe not. Teams generally want as much catching depth as they can get — specifically so they don’t end up in Anaheim’s situation — so even if a backup is playing sparingly he still may be difficult to obtain via trade. Still, if Conger’s prognosis doesn’t improve quickly, the Angels may be forced to get creative. And no, by get creative I don’t mean seeing if Mark Trumbo can catch.

Chris Iannetta isn’t Johnny Bench, but he is a valuable member of the Angels, especially considering the team’s hitting struggles. His injury certainly isn’t a death blow for the Angels, but with Conger also on the shelf, it puts the Angels in a sticky situation. They are already well behind the Rangers, are not playing to their potential, and are stuck with a manager who insists on playing Vernon Wells no matter how bad he plays. The Angels aren’t yet down for the count, but Iannetta’s injury makes what was already going to be a tough uphill climb to contention even steeper.