Angels appear loaded at catcher

Angels appear loaded at catcher

It is common knowledge that Mike Scioscia is partial to catchers, even though the Angels' skipper can be tough on them in private tutorials. The love runs so deep he collects them like valuable baseball cards.

When the Angels open camp in Arizona in two weeks, Scioscia will be surrounded by quality receivers, taking him back to his early days in the Dodgers' organization when he was absorbing information from such esteemed former stars as Roy Campanella, John Roseboro and Del Crandall.

The corner of the home clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium leading out to the field will feature the likes of Mike Napoli, Jeff Mathis, Bobby Wilson, Ryan Budde and Hank Conger.

Introductions will not be necessary. Hugs and a few moments spent catching up will suffice.

Few, if any, organizations are as deep at the position Scioscia considers the most vital on the field, pitchers excluded. This is good news for the Angels and their fans, but it is less than thrilling if you're one of the catchers hoping to win a steady job -- or a job, period.

Before they signed Hideki Matsui to serve as their primary designated hitter in 2010, it appeared the Angels might reserve that role for Napoli, who excelled as a DH in 2009. This would have enabled the club to carry Mathis as the full-service catcher and Wilson as his understudy.

Since he's out of Minor League options, Wilson must be kept on the 25-man roster this season. If not, he'll be plucked by another club. Catchers with his skill set are a valued commodity.

"I'll go to Spring Training with the same mindset I always have: to improve any way I can and try to make the club," Wilson said. "Being out of options does open up other possibilities. I want to be here, but I know I can help a Major League club, even if it's not the Angels."

A rundown on the four receivers on the 40-man roster and Conger, the blue-chip prospect:

Napoli: His booming bat adds a dimension to the lineup that best buddy Mathis was lacking until his remarkable breakout in the postseason.

Napoli, 28, batted .272 in 2009 with 20 home runs and 56 RBIs in 114 games along with a .350 on-base percentage and .492 slugging percentage. Eligible for arbitration, he agreed to a $3.6 million deal, a significant raise from the $2 million he earned in '09.

The Angels were 51-33 in Napoli's 84 starts behind the plate, compared to 46-32 in Mathis' 78 starts. The staff's ERA has been appreciably better the past two seasons with Mathis behind the plate. Angels pitchers forged a 3.99 ERA in Mathis' 657 innings in '09, and he threw out 25 percent of attempted basestealers. The team ERA was 4.86 with Napoli, who rejected 15 percent of those trying to steal in his 758 innings.

Napoli struggled offensively in the postseason, going 2-for-13 with one double. A .194 career hitter in 31 postseason at-bats with a .419 slugging percentage, he authored one of the greatest performances in franchise history in Game 3 of the American League Division Series in Boston in '08. After launching a pair of homers against Josh Beckett, Napoli singled and scored the decisive run in the Angels' lone victory that postseason.

By limiting their consecutive games and keeping them relatively fresh, Scioscia is able to diminish the injury risk. Napoli made it through the season without going on the disabled list after missing a month in 2008 with shoulder irritation and making two trips to the DL in '07 with hamstring and ankle injuries.

Mathis: The front office is trying to hammer out a deal and avoid arbitration with Mathis, who has three years and 12 days of service time and is in the Angels' control for three more seasons. He'll be 27 on March 31.

Mathis is seeking $1.3 million, with the club offering $700,000. Napoli has more service time -- three years, 151 days -- but that significant disparity in salaries suggests that the arbitration process favors offense over defense.

Napoli, always Mathis' staunchest supporter, swears his buddy will settle in as a productive hitter when he gains confidence. Mathis hit .211 last season with a .288 on-base percentage and .308 slugging mark.

The former high school football star in Florida delivered handsomely with spectacular, unexpected postseason fireworks. Mathis won Game 3 of the AL Championship Series at home against the Yankees with a walk-off double while batting a combined .533 in 15 at-bats against the Red Sox and Yankees. His five doubles hiked his postseason OPS (on-base plus slugging) to 1.583.

In 20 career postseason at-bats, Mathis is batting .450 with a 1.150 OPS.

Wilson: He doesn't have one special skill that jumps out at you, but Wilson is solid across the board. An excellent receiver who is highly respected by pitchers for his game-calling, Wilson comes equipped with a bat that makes steady contact, slashing line drives all over the field.

A .283 career hitter in 2,399 Minor League at-bats, Wilson is 2-for-11 (.182) in limited Major League opportunities. He saved a win for John Lackey in Oakland in July by smothering a ball in the dirt that could have been a game-ending wild pitch -- and was shipped back to Triple-A Salt Lake a few hours later.

Packing his bag that day, Wilson, who will be 27 on April 8, expressed the bittersweet nature of his day when he said, "It feels great to contribute ... but I'm going back to where I don't want to be."

He should find a job somewhere in the big time this season, even if it's not in Anaheim with all the athletes he has known since his professional debut in 2003.

Budde: Wilson and Budde, 30, have been Salt Lake's version of Mathis and Napoli the past two seasons, with the powerful Budde cast as Napoli.

Few players in the game can drive the ball as far as the compactly built Budde. His challenge has been making consistent contact -- and getting consistent playing time surrounded by so much talent.

Budde, whose catching skills are solid, hit .227 at Salt Lake in 2009 with a .370 slugging percentage. He is 3-for-20 (.150) in the Majors with limited looks in '07 and '08.

Budde is expected to open the season at Salt Lake, sharing the job with Conger.

Conger: Chosen in the first round (25th overall) in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft out of nearby Huntington Beach (Calif.) High School, Conger, a second-generation Korean-American, finally got a chance in 2009 to demonstrate his catching skills at Double-A Arkansas.

His early progress behind the plate was hindered by a succession of injuries (hand, back, shoulder), but he was able to demonstrate his tremendous power, especially from the left side as a DH at the lower levels.

Finally healthy and cleared to catch regularly, Conger batted .295 at Arkansas with a .369 on-base percentage, delivering 11 homers and 68 RBIs in an environment unfriendly to power hitters. The Travelers had a total of 69 homers in 140 games.

"Counting the Fall League, he caught about 100 games this year," Angels scouting director Eddie Bane said. "Every time I've talked to Hank, I've told him, 'You're not going to catch for Mike Scioscia unless you can catch.' He knows that.

"He's going to be a middle-of-the-order bat in somebody's lineup -- hopefully, ours. He can drive the ball from both sides, but his left-handed swing is something to watch. We've got some quality catchers in the big leagues, but this guy has a future."

Moving up the depth chart behind Conger are Anel de los Santos, Alberto Rosario, Carlos Ramirez and Brian Walker.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.