Hank Conger says he understands why he was sent back down to Triple-A yesterday, but does he, and Angel fans in general, understand the entire line of logic behind returning the promising prospect to the minor leagues?
No, the real reason behind Conger getting demoted wasn't Jeff Mathis threatening once again to make public whatever compromising photos of Scioscia that we all suspect he's been lording over him for years. OK, maybe that has a little bit to do with it, but the primary reason has more to do with the Angels desire to improve over Jeff Mathis both now and in the long-term.
The long-term benefit of this move is the most obvious. Hank Conger may be one of the best catching prospects in baseball, but he just isn't quite ready for The Show yet. The big knock on Conger before the season was that his defense may not be good enough to keep him in the majors. At times, Conger has proven those doubters wrong, but at other points they looked very right. The problem was that Conger was so focused on trying to gets his defense up to Mike Scioscia's lofty standards that it caused him to let the rest of his game to get away from him.
It was about a month ago that Hank Conger had a nice game with the bat, but in his post-game interview he stated that he didn't really care about that and was solely concerned with his defensive failings that night. I'm sure Mike Scioscia loved to hear that, but to me, it is taking it too far. Sure, Conger needs to improve his work behind the plate, but if he is going to make a name for himself, it is going to be with the bat, but Conger lost sight of that.
Returning him to the minors allows Hank to continue improve on his defensive skills, but it also allows him to relax mentally a little bit so that he can get his offensive confidence back. Once he does that, be it in a month or next season, the Angels can finally install him as their catcher of not just the present, but of the future.
However, the Angels need to do something to tide themselves over and by ridding themselves of their Conger-shaped crutch, they seem to be signaling that they are ready to do just that.
While it seems to a lot of us that Mike Scioscia has had an unhealthy and illogical man-crush on Jeff Mathis for the last several years, even Sosh can't be convinced that the right thing for the Angels' playoffs hope is to give Mathis and his Mendozian bat even more at-bats. If anything, demoting Conger is going to make it easier for Scioscia to cutback Mathis' playing time. I believe the first step of this plan will be to give the playing time previously reserved for Conger to little-used Bobby Wilson, a player that Scioscia likes enough to keep him around as a third catcher for the last year and a half even though he barely plays. If Wilson can show Scioscia something over the next week and a half, Bobby could very well leapfrog Mathis altogether since he is comparable defensively and just barely useful enough on offense as to not enrage the fanbase (and I can't overstate the importance of that last part).
If Wilson does fail, and maybe even if he doesn't, clearing out Conger could also be a sign that the team is FINALLY ready to look outside the organization to bring some stability to their long beleaguered half of battery. There have been whispers of the Angels kicking the tires on the Reds' Ramon Hernandez, far and away the best offensive catcher potentially available on the trade market. Or maybe the Angels can be the ones to finally talk the Cubs into giving up Geovany Soto. Soto is an up-and-down hitter, but when he is up, he is an All-Star performer. When he's down, he's still leaps and bounds better than Mathis. Either player, or even a guy like Rod Barajas or Miguel Olivo, would provide immediate upgrades offensively and the Angels need all the run-scoring help they can get. Waiting for Conger's bat to come around could do that too, but the Angels need a sure thing right now, which is why the Angels sent him down.
Maybe a trade is just wishful thinking on my admittedly anti-Mathis part, but I refuse to believe that Mike Scioscia doesn't see the folly in making Jeff Mathis his primary backstop without some kind of offensive complement around to balance him out. He had Napoli before and surely had hoped that Conger could play that role this year. Barring Bobby Wilson breaking out in a big way this week, I have to think Scioscia has finally instructed his puppet GM to go out and get him some real reliable help and getting Conger out of the way was the first step in that process.
The state of catching is so bad the only place to find help may be within the system. Among the few catchers who can hit, which is on a team willing to give him away? The Cubs aren't that cash-strapped and Soto is the one I'd want. I'd have to think the cost would be prohibitive, even for a dyed-in-the-wool Mathis hater.