Hank Conger made his first career opening day roster two years ago. He would like to do so again – and stick around this time, too.
The 25-year-old catcher knows what he needs to do.
“In this organization, we really take pride on our defense,” he said. “That’s the number one thing as a catcher, our defense. As long as we keep focusing on improving on the defensive part, hopefully things work out.”
It’s no secret, really. In parts of three seasons, Conger has only thrown out 16 percent of attempted base stealers. An average major-league catcher will be around 25 percent. Last year Chris Iannetta successfully threw out 25.8 percent and Bobby Wilson 28.6 percent.
Wilson is gone, leaving a vacant backup position behind Iannetta. Conger and John Hester are the only other catchers on the 40-man roster.
Conger has batted no worse than .295 in Triple-A the last three years and the Angels believe that will translate at the major-league level eventually.
Hester is nearly five years older and has a caught-stealing percentage of 29 over seven minor-league seasons, but his bat isn’t as steady. Last year at Triple-A he hit .230, splitting the season between the Angels and Orioles affiliates, and he hit .252 the year before with the Orioles’ and Diamondbacks’ farm teams.
Conger’s defense – specifically, his ability to throw out runners – and ability to handle a veteran pitching staff seem to be the only thing standing between him and the backup job.
“If look at way his career has progressed, he has made huge strides on the defensive side the last two years,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, “finding consistent arm slot with his throwing, having that confidence he can make that throw when guy is stealing, his ability to work with pitchers. He’s light years from where he was.”
Neither Conger nor Hester have much major-league experience, but Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto is comfortable with the organizational depth at catcher. Southern California native Matt Treanor remains a free agent but DiPoto said the thought of signing a veteran “hasn’t really crossed my mind.”
“Hank Conger needs an opportunity to cut his teeth,” he said. “Eventually you’re going to have to make a decision on Hank. He’s got one option left. It’s his time. We’re very comfortale with Chris Iannetta as our front man. All things being equal, you’re trying to manage your present and your future.”
Conger seems to have a good sense of the moment. Seven years ago, he was drafted in the first round out of Huntington Beach High School, 25th overall in an Angels draft class that includes only one othe player — outfielder Chris Pettit — to reach the big leagues as an Angel. The “prospect” label comes with an expiration date.
“It’s definitely a big year,” he said. “It’s at that point where you’ve got to prove yourself or go back.”