A Pittsburgh Pirates Trade Target
By Tom Smith
Aug 6, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels catcher Hank Conger (24) fields a bunt hit by Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon (not pictured) during the first inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
The last thing most thought we would be talking about is a Pirates catching trade target right now. But while the Pittsburgh Pirates continue to do the unthinkable without Andrew McCutchen, an underlying narrative is the fact that their starting catcher is going to hit the road in the off season. In the world of tight budgets on Federal Street, where an attendance record is going to be set in 2014, it appears the Bucs won’t have the dough to pay Russell Martin. It’s a bitter pill for Buccos fans to swallow and should it play out, disappointment will loom over another Pittsburgh winter.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way of course.
The Pirates signed Russell Martin to a two-year deal and prayed that their first round pick Tony Sanchez would be ready by 2015. With Sanchez having a down season thus far, most feel the Pirates option boils down to this–the Pirates are going to have to pay Russell Martin big money. It’s hard to type, let alone believe.
But there is another way Pittsburgh. There is always another way and over the next, I don’t know, week or so we are going to give you some options and feel free to add yours in the comments. The Pirates should target teams that would be willing to trade a talented catcher, say maybe for a pitcher–a talent the Bucs have a wealth of in their system. So just who might these catchers be is the question.
Let me warn you, the ones we targeted aren’t really sexy.
Hank Conger Yawn. Courtesy Halos Daily
But we have an object lesson waiting in the final paragraph for you, so please, keep reading.
Get back in the time machine and remember what Russell Martin was before coming to Pittsburgh. Despite hitting 21 homers in his final season with the New York Yankees, he hit eleven points above the Mendoza line. Writers were calling the pitching framing abilities a unicorn, probably because most simply didn’t understand it.
Now all that’s changed of course and oh by the way, Martin is hitting the cover off the ball in his final year of that two-year contract that got him out of Yankees pinstripes. The assassian is going to get paid, and it says here Bob Nutting isn’t going to make it happen. So, since we didn’t fall in love with any catchers on the free agent market, it’s time for Neal Huntington and his team to save Nutting’s ass again.
Neal Huntington will be looking for a catcher in 2015
For us, the digging starts in the American League West where the L.A. Angels are in second place. But the Angels offense has been shit since the All Star Break–ice cold with the third-lowest OPS and runs per game in baseball. So we feel the Angels need to do a little something to shake things up. (In my best yinzer voice) How ’bout Chris Stewart for Hank Conger?
You know. A redux, in sorts, of the our bad ex-closer for your bad ex-closer deal. The one that sent Jason Grilli to L.A. and Ernie Frieri came to Pittsburgh to pour gas on late inning games for the Bucs including a beaning that eventually cost the Pirates Andrew McCutchen when Frieri beaned Paul Goldschmidt. Of course, I kid with that notion, but Conger is a player I like and the Angels have expressed interest in trading him in the past.
Hank Conger is near the top of the Baseball Prospectus advanced catching matrix this season. And last season. Pitch framing is a skill that Conger does with ease as he has added the same number of extra strikes as Russell Martin has added despite having roughly 500 less chances this season. One could argue that Conger might be the best in all of baseball at grabbing an extra strike based on the fact that he’s not even the starting Angels catcher.
Hank Conger GIF courtesy FanGraphs.
The Angels 25th overall pick in the 2006 draft, had hit well in the minors with a .298/.371/.470 slash in 854 plate appearances in AAA. It was obviously helpful to play in the Pacific Coast League, but the switch hitter’s strikeout rate was just 14.7%.
But the bat hasn’t played well in the majors where he has now made 715 plate appearances to a lowly .227/.298/.335 triple slash, the defense has helped keep him on the field. But the Panda Crusher has never had a full season of at-bats to prove that he should be an average big league stick. After a smoking month of April, Conger’s offense has fell off the cliff helping the buy low mantra.
The throwing arm has also improved this season. Conger has shown some of his best numbers at gunning would be base stealers.
Getting a catcher of Conger’s defensive abilities should be a priority. It’s hard to even fathom what the Pirates would do if Martin were to be out of the lineup down the stretch.
But I get it, many talk about clubhouse chemistry. I prefer to have a backup catcher that can add value on the field. When Martin gets a day off what the Pirates have in their backup catcher seems to be a guy that elicits Chris(T)! STEWART cries throughout the city. The sooner a better backup can be found the better, even if a waiver wire deal were able to go down.
Jun 21, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels catcher Hank Conger (16) reacts after hitting a single down the right field line against the Texas Rangers at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
The not so sexy bottom line is Conger needs help offensively.
It’s hard to imagine Panda Crusher ever hitting like Martin is hitting this season, but remember he has been touched by the hands of Mike Trout while awesome torches spew fire into the Anaheim sky.
Jun 9, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout (27) is congratulated by catcher Hank Conger (16) after a ground-rule double because of fan interference in the fifth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
If Conger were to team with Tony Sanchez as the catching tandem in 2015, a downside would be when the Bucs face lefties. Both Conger and Sanchez have struggled this season against southpaws although each has hit lefties moderately well prior to 2014.
But it’s the defense that seems much more important to the Pirates pitching staff and the budget tight Bucs and Conger’s defense is damn good.
Finally, that object lesson I told you about is this. Deals like this often seem under the radar. Just like when the Cleveland Indians were able to grab ‘utility man’ Yan Gomes in a deal with the Blue Jays in November of 2012. Now the Indians have one of the best catchers in the game and recently signed Gomes to an insanely team friendly deal.
So don’t dismiss the trade market should Martin walk out of Pittsburgh after the season. Deals that land a great catcher are definently rare, but they have been done. It would have been a lot easier if Tony Sanchez would have developed as planned, but prospects usually break hearts. Conger seems to have done that in L.A. and a fresh start in Pittsburgh just might start restoring his once top prospect accolades.
P.S. After writing 1000 words about replacing Russell Martin, we got really depressed. After trying to find another trade target, we got even more depressed. It might be awhile until we get around to writing about another one, so just enjoy the GIFs.
Jun 6, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels catcher Hank Conger (16) makes a play in the seventh inning of the game against the Chicago White Sox at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Angels won 8-4. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports