Chris Moran is a second-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also an assistant coach with the baseball team at Washington University. He graduated from Wheaton College, where he wore the tools of ignorance for the baseball team. Follow him on twitter @hangingslurves.
With the New York Yankees signing of Brian McCann, there aren’t any big names remaining in the catcher free-agent pool. Of course, the Sox could always bring back Jarrod Saltalamacchia but the two sides are reportedly pretty far apart right now, with the Sox being unwilling to offer more than two years. Coming off a season where he hit .273/.338/.466 with a 117 wRC+ and 3.6 WAR, Salty is likely going to want more than that.
So, if they can’t bring back Saltalamacchia, who should the Red Sox turn their attention to? Veteran David Ross is a very underrated backstop but he’ll be 37 by the time the 2014 season rolls around and he’s only caught more than 90 games once in his career.
A name I believe the Sox should consider is Hank Conger, a 25 year-old who caught 92 games for the Angels this season. Conger isn’t eligible for free agency until 2018, so the Sox would have to swing a trade for him, but the Angels have indicated they are willing to trade him.
Conger has received 508 career major league plate appearances over which he has produced a .225/.295/.368 batting line with an 85 wRC+. In 2013, he hit .249/.310/.403 with a 99 wRC+. His career strikeout and walk rates are 21.1%, and 7.9%, respectively. By way of comparison, Saltalamacchia has a career .246/.310/.428 line with a 96 wRC+ and strikeout and walk rates of 29.4% and 8.3%.
Conger has played plenty of games in the hitter-friendly PCL, and his career minor league line is .295/.359/.467. In the minors he had a low strikeout rate of 14.7%. A switch hitter, Conger is better from the left side, though he has fairly small platoon splits. He’s a significantly better hitter against lefties than Saltalamacchia. Based on what he has done in the minor leagues and in his somewhat limited major league experience, Conger should be an average MLB hitter, which translates to a solid hitting catcher. Most likely, he’s Saltalamacchia’s equal at the plate.
Defensively, Conger doesn’t have the strongest arm, his 22% caught stealing rate is nearly equal to Saltalamacchia’s 23%. Neither have a reputation as a good thrower. Also, they have an identical rate of passed balls and wild pitches per 9 innings.
Where Conger really stands out is pitch-framing. Using StatCorner’s pitch-framing study, Conger saved more runs than all but four catchers. On a per game basis, Conger was better than every catcher except Yasmani Grandal. By signing David Ross, one of the game’s best pitch-framers, to a two-year deal last offseason, the Sox demonstrated that this skill is something they value. Saltalamacchia on the other hand, is a shade below average.
Overall, Conger would be a good fit for the Red Sox. He has a decent bat, and he’s not quite 26, so there could be room for improvement. The Sox would have to part with a prospect or two to acquire him from the Angels, but he’s unlikely to cost one of the top names in their farm system. Furthermore, since Conger is under team control, he won’t cost much in the salary department. Overall, the cost of acquring him would be cheaper than almost any free agent option, and certainly cheaper than Saltalamacchia who is looking for something in the range of $10 million per year. At the least, he can keep the spot warm for prospects. Blake Swihart or Christian Vazquez.
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