Years from now, when Angel fans think back on Jerry Dipoto’s tenure as GM of the Los Angeles Angels, they’ll almost certainly think of the blockbuster moves he made during his first two seasons on the job.
In December of 2011, the man lovingly referred to as “Jedi” put Santa Claus to shame when he returned from the Winter Meetings bearing two of the mostly highly-coveted gifts of the Christmas season. Over the course of four tumultous days in Dallas, Dipoto successfully bolstered the Angels starting rotation (while simultaneously striking a blow to the division-rival Rangers) by signing left-handed pitcher and former Texas ace, C.J. Wilson, to a 5-year/$77.5MM contract. Oh, and he also managed to snag some guy named José Pujols. Dipoto went on to fortify a struggling bullpen by acquiring Ernesto Frieri from San Diego and adding Zack Greinke to one of the more dominant pitching staffs in baseball through a trade with Milwaukee. But it wasn’t enough. After the Angels missed the playoffs for the third straight year, Dipoto went back to work this offseason: signing 5x All-Star, 3x Silver Slugger, and 2010 AL MVP, Josh Hamilton.
The Jedi clearly made his name known over his first year plus at the helm of the Angels. He worked endlessly behind closed doors to land some of the biggest free agents of the past decade. He improved a disappointing bullpen after the 2012 season and played an instrumental role in making the decision to release Bobby Abreu and call up Mike Trout. But perhaps, years from now, fans might not recall the first move Dipoto made as GM of the Angels: the trade of pitching prospect Tyler Chatwood to the Colorado Rockies for a catcher named Chris Iannetta.
From Rhode Island to the Rockies.
Christopher Domenic Iannetta grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. He played baseball during his years at St. Raphael Academy (a high school in Pawtucket) and graduated in 2001. His jersey has since been retired. Iannetta moved on to the University of North Carolina where he played catcher and first base for the Tar Heels. According to Baseball Reference, “Iannetta hit .333/.431/.539 in a fine freshman year in college. He was named to Baseball America's All-Freshman team second string. His sophomore season in 2003 marked a fall to .319/.407/.496...In '04, Iannetta batted .336/.438/.598 and Baseball America picked him for third-team All-American.” Iannetta was selected in the 4th round of the 2004 draft by the Colorado Rockies. After spending the first two years of his career in the minors, Iannetta was called up in late August of 2006.
Over his six seasons with the Rockies, Iannetta posted a .235/.357/.430, hit 63 homeruns, drove in 236 runs, and caught over 450 games. His best year came in 2008 when he hit .264/.390/.505 with career highs in hits (88), doubles (22), homeruns (18), and runs batted in (65). The career year landed Iannetta a spot on Team USA’s roster for the 2009 World Baseball Classic. And then on November 30, 2011 – before Pujols or C.J., before Hamilton or Ernasty – Iannetta was traded to the Angels.
Welcome to Anaheim.
Among the philosophies Dipoto preached after taking over as GM of the Angels was the importance of getting on base. He valued patient hitters who were willing to work the count and draw a walk or shorten up their swing and drop a blooper over the head of an infielder for a single. For Jedi, Chris Iannetta was the perfect player. During his time in Colorado, Iannetta averaged a respectable .357 OBP and drew 241 walks while swinging at just over 18% of pitches outside the strike zone. While lacking the power of former Angels catcher Mike Napoli, Iannetta more than made up for the average and OBP that were missing from the position during Jeff Mathis’ final year in Anaheim. But would Iannetta’s defense be enough to please catching legend and Angels skipper Mike Scioscia?
It’s well known that Scioscia is...(how do I say this?)...very particular about his catchers. He won’t settle for mediocrity behind the plate. You have to be able to block balls in the dirt, pick off runners at first & third, and – most importantly – call a good game. For an Angels catcher under Mike Scioscia, it doesn’t matter what your batting average is as long as you have a good CERA. As a member of the Rockies, Iannetta sported a .995 fielding percentage with just 27 passed balls over six seasons. He threw out nearly 34% of base stealers and committed just 14 errors. Clearly, Iannetta had the defensive prowess and plate discipline to please both Scioscia and Dipoto heading into the 2012 season.
Iannetta’s first season with the Angels was a bit of a letdown for multiple reasons. The new Halo backstop was hitting just .197/.312/.394 through the first 26 games of the season before he suffered a fractured right wrist after being hit by a fastball from Minnesota Twins pitcher Liam Hendriks during the second inning of a game at The Big A on Wednesday, May 2, 2012. It was a bittersweet and heroic night for Iannetta who, despite his injury, somehow managed to stay in the game and catch Jered Weaver’s first career no-hitter. Iannetta would eventually need surgery on his wrist and be forced to miss nearly three months of the season. He returned to the team on Sunday, July 29, 2012, going 1-for-3 with a single against the Tampa Bay Rays after a 70 game absence.
Iannetta hit .257 in 173 plate appearances over the remainder of the season. He finished the year batting .240/.332/.398 in 79 games for the Angels. Despite his offensive struggles, Iannetta continued to impress with his performance behind the plate. During his first year as a member of the Halos, Iannetta recorded a .996 fielding percentage with a 3.90 CERA and threw out nearly 26% of base stealers. While Iannetta’s overall performance was somewhat less than fans had anticipated, Dipoto and Scioscia clearly liked what they saw. On October 5, 2012, rather than simply picking up the catcher’s $5MM club option for 2013, the Angels and Chris Iannetta agreed on a 3-year/$15.5MM contract extension that will keep the 29-year-old Rhode Island native in Halo Red through the 2015 season.
But will that signal the end of Iannetta’s tenure in Orange County? Only time will tell. With Hank Conger primed to finally take over the back-up role and talented prospects like Robinson Diaz and Carlos Ramirez waiting in the wings, Iannetta’s extension may serve as short-term plan to fill the void until his successor is ready to take his place. Then again, I’d be willing to bet that a large part of his fate with the team hinges upon how Scioscia feels about the guy. I mean, how else could Jeff Mathis possibly have hung around for six years while hitting just .194/.257/.301? But, then again, things are different now with the Jedi in town. Scioscia might be steering the ship, but we all know who’s really in control. Isn’t that right, Jeff Mathis?*
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*Jerry Dipoto traded Jeff Mathis (long rumored by some to be Scioscia’s pet project of sorts) to the Toronto Blue Jays for left-handed pitcher Brad Mills just three days after acquiring Chris Iannetta from the Colorado Rockies.