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Catcher Wars vet Chris Iannetta lays claim as Rockies starter

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Will 2018 anoint him as the greatest Rockies catcher ever?

It’s hard to believe it has been almost a decade since the great Catcher Wars were waged. Then, young catcher Chris Iannetta slugged his way into our hearts and overthrew Yorvit Torrealba as the Rockies’ primary backstop. (That’s how I remember it, at least.) It was a battle that tore at the hearts of Rockies fans, or as Troy Renck put it in Feb. of 2010, “Google [Purple Row] and you’ll see debates about Chris Iannetta and Torrealba that could make Lincoln and Douglas blush.”

Fast forward eight years, and Iannetta is back in Colorado after a six-year hiatus that saw him suit up as an Angel, Mariner, and Diamondback. Ready to help the Rockies make a postseason run, Iannetta is slated as the starting catcher after a career resurgence in— get this— Phoenix, where he rose from the ashes in 2017 to ultimately live another life of renewed power and strength at Coors Field in 2018. It’s a classic tale of redemption and a hero’s journey home, but there are still suitors to be dealt with before he can solidify himself as the best catcher to don the purple pinstripes.

The Starter

Chris Iannetta has the potential to play a major role in this offense that was not great last year. I touched on it in January, but it’s worth noting how he stacks up to others in this current lineup. In 2017, Chris slashed .254/.354/.511 for a wRC+ of 120, and a tantalizing ISO of .257 that showed his pop. For comparison, Arenado hit a 129 wRC+ and .277 ISO, while Blackmon had a .270 ISO and wRC+ of 141. The next best Rockies’ hitter still in this lineup from last year is Trevor Story, who had a respectable .219 ISO, but less than ideal wRC+ of 81.

Iannetta already enters 2018 as an offensive weapon that could rival all but the club’s two superstars, and he does so from a position that’s typically not a reliable source of offense. He brings solid power to a team lacking it, and veteran stability and game-calling experience to a young pitching staff who hopes to prove the nay-sayers wrong about being able to succeed at Coors Field—something Iannetta knows well from his previous years playing at altitude with the Rockies.

It’s no secret that Iannetta will be the Rockies’ starting catcher on Opening Day (barring injury), and rightfully so, but it’s also clear there will be plenty of opportunity for a back-up catcher to make an impact. In December, Jeff Bridich told Thomas Harding of that Chris “will catch 100, give or take five, 10, 15 games, and the other catchers will complement.” This falls in line with Iannetta’s average workload over the past 10 years.

The Backups

Just like last year, Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy (No. 11 PuRP) will battle it out during spring training. Wolters has an immediate advantage as a complementary left-handed platoon bat when Iannetta needs a rest. Having been on the Rockies roster and catching major league games for the better part of two years now, familiarity is important.

Meanwhile, Murphy has been on the cusp of a big role since 2015, but injuries have slowed his ascension. He, too, has the potential to be an offensive force behind the plate for the Rockies. Tom has proven he can mash major league pitching (.286 ISO in 39 PA’s in ‘15, and a ridiculous .386 ISO in 49 PA’s in ‘16), but he needs to remain healthy and consistent if he wants to be the next great Rockies catcher.

Depth Options

While it’s possible the Rockies break camp and enter the regular season with all three catchers on the 25-man roster (Tony Wolters being used as a LHB platoon and hybrid C-INF utility-man), it is more likely that either Wolters or Murphy will begin the year in Triple-A.

Like I mentioned, I believe Wolters currently holds a slight advantage, but I would not be surprised to see Murphy destroy pitchers in the Pacific Coast League, or in spring training, while Wolters continues to struggle at the plate like he did in 2017, and Bridich will make the switch. Either way you look at it, the Rockies will have a capable, young catcher waiting in the wings who has proven he can compete at the major league level.

One more name to keep on your radar is Chris Rabago, the Rockies’ 13th round pick in the 2014 Amateur Draft. He has been a model of consistency climbing the organizational rungs, going from the Tri-City and Grand Junction to Asheville and Lancaster in four years. Rabago was also named the Rockies’ MiLB Organizational All-Star at catcher in 2017, as he set many personal records in his advanced level debut and slashed a solid .272/.350/.393 over a career-high 89 games. In a surprise move, he was added to the 40-man roster in November as protection from the Rule 5 draft, which suggests that the Rockies think highly of Robago.

On the Farm

The Rockies’ top prospect at the catcher position is still Dom Nuñez (No. 21 PuRP). Dom had a tough season in ‘16, posting an 85 wRC+ at High-A Lancaster, but he took some small steps forward last year at Double-A Hartford. Specifically, he improved to a more respectable 94 wRC+, increased his BB%, ISO, and wOBA. Additionally, he was named the Best Defensive Catcher in the Colorado Rockies system by Baseball America following the 2017 season. Since he has struggled at the plate ever since facing advanced level competition, though, it’s no wonder doubts linger as he takes a step back on the 2018 PuRP list.

Nuñez received a non-roster invite to compete with the Rockies this spring, and joining him will be another catcher with one of the best names in baseball—Anthony Bemboom. Anthony spent 2017, his first season with the Rockies, in Triple-A with the ‘Topes and put together a very fine season by slashing .278/.390/.459 with an ISO of .180, wOBA of .374, and wRC+ of 123. Because of his experience and ability to handle advanced competition, Bemboom likely has a leg-up on Nunez entering 2018, though Dom’s ceiling is higher.

If Catastrophe Strikes

What would catastrophe at the catcher position look like for the Rockies in 2018? In short, the likeliest disaster would be for Iannetta to fall victim to an injury for extended time, and Wolters and Murphy both don’t adjust to their miserable 2017 campaigns and continue to perform below-average this year.

In all honesty, I don’t see the Rockies adding any veteran catcher as insurance in 2018 like they did last year with Ryan Hanigan. A lot will depend on their playoff positioning mid-season, though, so if Iannetta can’t stay on the field, and the Rockies are in the midst of battling for the division or a Wild Card spot, anything is possible. A name to keep in mind as a rental could be veteran Wilson Ramos, an All-Star and Silver Slugger in 2016, whose contract expires after 2018 and is playing for the fire-sale Tampa Bay Rays. Otherwise, look for Bemboom to get a chance in the big leagues.

Clearly, a lot is riding on Chris Iannetta this season. If he proves to be as impactful as I expect and hope, and the Rockies make the postseason with his help, it would further solidify his spot as the greatest catcher in Rockies’ (relatively short) history.