Angels still unsettled behind the plate
The time-share arrangement between catchers Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli finally ended when Napoli was traded in January, but it’s not as if Mathis will simply take over the lease.
The position seems as unsettled for the Angels entering Saturday’s exhibition opener against the Dodgers as it has been the last five years, with Mathis no closer to claiming ownership of the job than he was when Napoli, his former roommate, was in town.
Mathis’ career-long offensive slump — he’s a .199 lifetime hitter with far more strikeouts (285) than hits (190) — has left the door wide open for second-year catcher Bobby Wilson and top prospect Hank Conger to win the job, or significant playing time.
“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “It’s not just picking one guy and ordaining him.”
Wilson, who played sparingly as a third catcher in 2010, looks hungry, and not just because he lost 33 pounds over the winter, from 243 to 210.
“It was nice to be up last season, but if you talk to any player, from Little League to high school to college to pro ball, no one wants to sit on the bench,” said Wilson, 27. “There’s an opportunity here, and I want to seize it.”
Though he has played only 13 big league games, Conger, 23, may be the best hitter of the trio, and he showed promise defensively last September, when he guided pitchers to a 1.91 earned-run average in 80 innings and the Angels went 7-2 in his starts.
“There’s going to be competition for not only roster spots but playing time, and Hank is in the middle of that,” Scioscia said. “He showed in September he is really advanced as far as what a catcher needs to do in calling and running a game.”
Mathis, 27, is the most experienced and polished defender of the three, though a wrist injury hampered his throwing last season. He could win the job on game-management skills and athleticism alone.
But he knows there is one sure way to fend off the competition — with a more potent bat.
“Even when Nap was here, I always wanted to win the starting job; that hasn’t changed,” Mathis said. “But to do that, I have to hit better, no doubt. Defense is No. 1 for catcher, but you can’t have someone in the lineup who is not producing.”
Mathis has shown offense at times, batting .534 with five doubles in seven playoff games in 2009 and .324 in his first 10 games last season.
But he broke a bone in his right wrist blocking a pitch in the dirt on April 19 and missed two months.
Mathis returned in June but slumped, finishing with a .195 average, three homers and 18 runs batted in. He threw out 11 of 54 base-stealers, a 20% success rate.
Napoli, who was traded to Toronto for Vernon Wells on Jan. 21 and dealt to Texas three days later, was considered the superior hitter and inferior defender of the two. But he threw out 27% (19 of 71) of base-stealers.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” Mathis said. “It stunk to be on the disabled list for two months; it was the most miserable time of my career. But it’s part of the game. I’m looking to bounce back.”
So is Scioscia.
“When he came back, it was like starting over,” Scioscia said. “His second half was miserable. But I think there is an upside to his offense.
“Jeff doesn’t have his head buried in the sand. He knows he brings a lot on defense. He also knows there are guys who are going to bring that defensive piece and some offense too.”
Could Wilson be that guy? Hard to tell.
A .283 hitter in seven minor league seasons, Wilson has hit .224 in 107 big league at-bats. He has never played an extended stretch in the big leagues, but he has put himself in a position to.
“In some ways, I wasn’t prepared last year,” Wilson said. “There aren’t many catchers who looked the way I did last year. They’re all in shape, athletic, and that was definitely an eye-opener for me. I want to look just as good or better, if that’s what it takes.”
Wilson feels “a big difference” in his mobility this spring, but he must improve his throwing and hitting to win the job.
“I need to get more of a rhythm at the plate,” Wilson said. “I need to understand what pitchers are trying to do, be more of a student of the game.”
Conger, despite having the most upside, is a longshot because of inexperience. Slowed by shoulder injuries, he has caught only 259 games in 4½ minor league seasons, probably not enough to be named a starter by Scioscia, who demands a lot from his catchers.
But Conger made huge strides over the last two seasons and worked hard to become more agile this winter. His focus this spring is on footwork.
Scioscia said if Conger doesn’t win the starting job, he will return to triple A for more seasoning. The Angels will not carry three catchers this season.
“I’m not really thinking about the job; I just want to work hard and be healthy,” said Conger, a former Huntington Beach High star. “I have to improve my whole mental game, gain confidence. I know I haven’t caught enough games.”
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