The Colorado Rockies will once again turn to a veteran catcher next season to help lead their young pitching staff. Chris Iannetta is back where he started his career, having signed a two-year deal last week.
Iannetta returns to the Rockies after a half season in which the team relied on Jonathan Lucroy to stabilize the catcher position as they earned a playoff spot. Going into the winter we knew the Rockies would prioritize a veteran presence behind the plate, but it was just one year ago that their plan was something different entirely—they planned to use a young combination of Tom Murphy and Tony Wolters. What does Iannetta’s return mean for them?
Iannetta might be the primary catcher, but that’s no guarantee
It is reasonable to think that Iannetta will fill Lucroy’s role from last season. The team clearly benefited down the stretch from having a veteran catcher to deliver tougher at-bats offensively and to help manage the young pitching staff in the pressure of a playoff race.
Iannetta was fulfilling a similar role with the Arizona Diamondbacks. His offensive season really stands out, as he continued to be an on-base machine, as he produced a .254/.354/.511 slash line. His power was on display as well with 14 home runs and a 114 OPS+. He presumably offered a similar veteran presence on defense, though he is known less for his work behind the plate these days. He only threw out 24% of attempted base stealers and was middle of the pack in pitch-framing—although he was better in that area than Lucroy or Wolters.
At 35 years old, Iannetta has all the tools to be the team’s top option at catcher. But there are a lot of questions from the ups and downs of his career. Can he return to being an elite pitch framer, will he regress to being an awful framer, or will he land somewhere in the middle again? Can he repeat those offensive numbers, specifically keeping his average up around .250 instead of down around .200? Can he throw out more runners?
We know he can do enough to be the go-to catcher, but we also know that he shared time with Jeff Mathis in Arizona, including the Wild Card game and two other playoff games. It feels like less of a given that Iannetta is penciled in for the primary role, which brings us to one of the Rockies’ young catchers.
Tom Murphy has the opportunity to take over
Jeff Bridich has been ambiguous, although not as vague as you might expect, when discussing how the Rockies’ two young catchers fit with Iannetta. He said he expects the starter to catch 100 games, “give or take five, 10, 15 games.” Leaning on GM speak in that moment, Bridich did not specify that he means Iannetta. In a spring competition or over the course of the season, Murphy has a chance to play his way into the top spot behind the plate.
The potential is all there for Murphy. The former third round pick has consistently torn through Triple-A and even flashed some big numbers for the Rockies at the end of 2016. Murphy’s arm injury last spring might be an underrated event in the story of the Rockies’ season. The team used five catchers, yet the one with arguably the highest ceiling talent-wise was the least relevant.
It is a fickle game for prospects as they graduate to the big leagues. Opportunities to take over can be fleeting, especially for contending teams. Murphy is going to get a chance to take the Rockies’ catching job this spring and deliver on his promise as a top prospect.
Tony Wolters needs to earn a spot as a back-up
There’s a reason Wolters is not included with Murphy as a young catcher who can take over. After a fairly miserable 2017, we have to ask a fairly harsh question about a fan favorite in Wolters: If he’s not a framing wizard providing great defense behind the plate, what is he? Is he a big league catcher?
Wolters did two things we didn’t expect when he broke out in 2016. He was an elite framer all season and a good hitter in the second half. Most of us probably figured that he was always going to be a below-average hitter, but there was no reason to believe his defense would tank as it did last season.
He still threw fairly well, catching 39% of attempted base stealers. But we knew him for his framing, and that went from elite (9.5 runs against added in 2016) to awful (-16.3 RAA in 2017). Bud Black and others around the team have discussed how Wolters wasn’t quite ready in terms of game management and pitch calling either. Put it all together, and Wolters was bad on both sides last season.
Wolters will be in the mix at some point this season. Teams need more than two catchers to make it through a season. But at this point he will need to improve significantly to not eventually be the odd man out.
There still might be other catchers in the mix
The more likely scenario is that a need arises at some point and the Rockies add another version of Ryan Hanigan for some depth. As for a higher priced free agent like Lucroy, we probably shouldn’t rule out a return just yet. Free agency is in a weird place and there is little to no market for that tier of free agent. If Lucroy fell enough in price that the Rockies felt they were getting a bargain, they would be wise to consider a pair of veterans to handle the catching duties.
We don’t know who will start next fall in (hopefully) a playoff race
But we can speculate!
It’s September 2018 and the Rockies have a big game. Who will be the starting catcher?
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