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Who will be the Rockies’ next Chris Iannetta at catcher?

The catcher position is clear for 2019, but there’s no clear long term solution

Writing about Rockies catchers on this website has a pre-requisite: One must make reference to the Catcher Wars of yesteryear, circa 2008-2009, when Chris Iannetta and Yorvit Torrealba fractured a community by charging discussions with things like the relative value of taking a walk. Iannetta won that battle. But even he was shipped off after the 2011 season in favor of Wilin Rosario. That experiment behind the plate was enough to make Iannetta detractors wish him back in Denver.

Iannetta returned to the Rockies in 2018 as the most successful catcher in team history, and he’s back for at least one more season in 2019 (the Rockies hold a $4.25 million option for 2020). In between his departure after the 2011 season and his re-arrival in 2018, the Rockies filled the catcher spot with unfulfilled promise (Rosario) and veterans on short contracts (Nick Hundley). They’ve also made a habit of signing veteran-veterans mid-season (Ryan Hanigan, Drew Butera) to take up the slack left by the younger guys, Tom Murphy and Tony Wolters. And, lest you think everyone’s satisfied with Iannetta, a lot of the offseason was spent discussing catcher as a major weakness on the Rockies roster.

The catcher position is approaching a state of transition. As Chris Iannetta nears the end of his second stint with the Rockies, the team still doesn’t have a clear candidate to be the next Chris Iannetta.

The starter

Iannetta is the starter for the 2019 season. Despite calls for a JT Realmuto trade or signing Yasmani Grandal, he may have always been the planned starter. Iannetta didn’t hit well in 2018, but he wasn’t a black hole at the plate either. He slashed .224/.345/.385, for an OPS+ of 85. His major weakness was a lack of power and extra base hits. Like always, Iannetta was great at taking a walk, with a team-leading 13.9% walk rate. Baseball Prospectus’s new batting metric, DRC+, assessed Iannetta’s batting line as basically league average once adjustments are factored in.

Great hitting catchers who are also good defensively and are able to maintain communicative relationships with the pitching staff are rare things. Iannetta isn’t a great hitter, but, as Renee Dechert has compellingly argued this offseason, Iannetta’s value shows up in the other, perhaps more important way. Given that this will be Iannetta’s second year handling a largely unchanged pitching staff, the Rockies probably feel pretty good about their starter behind the plate.

The backups

The Rockies will need to call on a backup catcher for about 50-60 starts in 2019. Like last year, there are two clear candidates to serve this role: Murphy and Wolters. Last year, there was a question of who will start the season on the 25-man roster. In 2019, however, that decision may be determined by each player’s status. According to Rockies Roster, Murphy is all out of options. That means if everyone’s healthy, he’ll need to be on the Opening Day roster. Wolters has one option remaining, so he can shuffle between Triple-A and the majors in 2019.

Backup catcher may be the ultimate career roles for both Wolters and Murphy. Wolters’s defense has been mostly good and sometimes great, and he does maintain a good rapport with the pitching staff. But he’s just such a poor hitter that any value he adds behind the plate may be negated by what he does at the plate. Over the past two seasons, Wolters has hit a dismal .209/.319/.285 in 482 plate appearances. A player with that line has to be either a superstar defender or a pitcher whisperer to justify a lineup spot.

And Murphy, once promising, has never been able to make a foothold in the majors. Injuries and, more recently, being overmatched by major league pitching, have stood in the way. He debuted in 2015, but since then Murphy has only played in 81 games and had 210 major league plate appearances. He’ll also be 28 years old by the time the Rockies play their home opener in early April, making him older than more than half of the 40-man roster. If Murphy’s struggles continue, the Rockies may need to make a tough present decision about their most recent “catcher of the future.”

Depth options

The most immediate depth options are Brett Nicholas and Chris Rabago. The Rockies signed Nicholas as a minor league free agent this offseason, and he’ll join the club as a non-roster invitee in Spring Training. The 30-year-old caught 34 games for the Rangers in 2016-2017. He also pitched an inning (5 runs on 4 hits — the man’s a catcher!). Nicholas spent the 2018 season in the Padres’ system, where he played 117 games.

The Rockies added Rabago to the roster in November 2017 to protect him in the Rule 5 draft. Since then, the Yankees claimed Rabago off waivers after the Rockies DFA’d him, the Royals selected Rabago in the minor league portion of the 2018 Rule 5 draft, and the Royals traded him to the Rockies for “cash considerations” this past December. Rabago is another non-roster invitee to Spring Training, and he’s another layer of emergency depth at catcher for 2019.

On the farm

It’s fallow on the farm when it comes to catchers. For a little while, it looked like Dom Nuñez was going to develop into an athletic defensive catcher with some pop. His swing was once compared to Carlos González’s. But Nuñez has all but lost his prospect shine. He came in at 30 on the most recent PuRPs list, and another poor season will probably see him, the only catcher among the Rockies’ top 30 prospects, fall off the list altogether. He’ll probably be in line to repeat Double-A for the third time in 2019.

The glimmer of hope is that Nuñez is still young at 24, and catcher is a hard position to learn. He may contribute at the major league level, but it won’t be soon, and it will be with lower expectations than he had a couple years ago.

The Rockies fifth round selection of the 2016 draft, Brian Serven, may be the next best catching prospect in the system. The 23-year-old played for High-A Lancaster in 2018, and he’s a decent bet to repeat that level and could even join Nuñez in Double-A at some point in 2019. But he’s still a couple years away from seeing major league action.

Other options

There are always old free agent catchers to call upon in case of emergency, or even in the case of non-emergency. Ryan Hanigan and Drew Butera played important games for the Rockies over the past two seasons, and it wasn’t due to a rash of injuries.

If catastrophe strikes soon, or if the Rockies make a decision about the fate of Tom Murphy soon, Martín Maldonado is still on the free agent market. He could be a fine addition, but the 32-year-old probably won’t be available for long. And even if he does make his way to Denver, the state of the catcher position will remain the same: Short term patches without an obvious long-term solution.