Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

New Rays catcher has pop in bat, but about that arm?

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays had their reasons for acquiring Hank Conger from Houston to compete with Rene Rivera as the other part of their catching tandem with Curt Casali.

A 27-year-old switch-hitter, Conger comes with a potent bat — 11 homers over 73 games with a .759 on-base plus slugging percentage (though a .229 average) — and a reputation as a solid receiver and pitch framer.

But Conger also comes with a historically bad — by some measures the worst ever — performance in trying to control the running game. He threw out 1 — one — of 43 base stealers last season, a dropoff from previous years (a decent 22.4 percent throw-out rate during parts of five seasons with the Angels) that he can't fully explain.

"It was kind of weird," Conger said Thursday night. "Next thing you know I looked up and obviously the numbers stand out a little bit. I'm not worried about it. I actually feel good right now, I've been working on some stuff. It's probably just an aberration. You look at the past years and the numbers have always kind of been where they're at. … I'm feeling pretty good and confident heading into next year. It's not physical. … I guess some things just kind of got away and built up from there. But nothing was really standing out."

The Rays feel confident Conger can do better, obviously, with managing Kevin Cash noting his team's overall emphasis on controlling the running game starting with the pitchers and the work their coaches can do with Conger's mechanics.

In adding Conger, acquired early Thursday for an undisclosed amount of cash, the Rays continued a productive offseason in filling needs, given the prior acquisition of likely starting shortstop Brad Miller, DH Logan Morrison and reliever Danny Farquhar.

The result, baseball operations president Matt Silverman said, is a team with "the talent to compete for a playoff spot" and no "glaring need" as it heads to next week's winter meetings.

To make room for Conger on the 40-man roster, outfielder Joey Butler, an unexpected offensive force early last season, was designated for assignment, though the Rays hope to re-sign him to a minor-league deal if he gets through waivers.

Though Casali is the projected starter — he has played only 66 games in the majors — Cash said it could be more of a job share. While Rivera struggled immensely offensively last year, Silverman said they still "have confidence" in him, evidenced by the decision to tender him a contract by Wednesday's deadline. Rivera and Conger are arbitration-eligible and projected to make around $1.5 million to $1.8 million.

"We'll go into camp with a full arsenal of catchers and see how it works itself out," Silverman said.

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