As Ryan's article last night has said, and as has been projected far and wide across Astros and baseball-themed social media, the Houston Astros have traded backup catcher Hank Conger to the Tampa Bay Rays for cash considerations.
The first thing I or anyone else should say in analyzing this trade is that Mr. Luhnow and his team (which, notably, includes Mike Fast, former Baseball Prospectus guru who pioneered some really outstanding work on catcher valuations) are very, very good at evaluating catchers. If they saw a reason to trade CongerBot, most Astros fans should probably nod meekly and say "Okay."
The second thing anyone should say is "But...the Rays have been arguably the best and most forward thinking front office in the major leagues over the last decade or so...particularly in catcher evaluations."
Far be it for me, a blogger, to criticize Mr. Luhnow and his team. #InLuhnowWeTrust, for sure.
But I, like many of you, don't understand this move. If I was looking at the Front Office's data, I might...but all I have is publicly available data, which is flawed and incomplete, to base my analysis on.
A couple of things right off the bat - Hank Conger was really, really good in 2015. His career-high 107 wRC+ was good for 13th best among all catchers with at least 100 plate appearances, and his pitch framing (the reason the Astros traded for him) was among the best in baseball:
Courtesy of StatCorner Catcher Report
He played in 73 games (or 45%) of the Astros 162 regular season games this year. It seems a valid concern that Conger's departure is going to negatively affect what was one of the best pitching staffs in baseball last year, as the Astros' realistic (since Alfredo Gonzalez still appears to be at least a year away from the Show) internal options to replace Conger as backup catcher include Max Stassi and Tyler Heineman - who are both adequate receivers in their own right but not one of the league's best like Conger is. How much that will affect the pitchers is debatable, but it will surely have SOME modicum of negative impact.
Stassi has limited major league experience but has at least performed well offensively in his short sample size of Major League action. Heineman has yet to play above AAA and can boast an impressive strikeout percentage there, but he's as yet a complete unknown at the highest level.
The other negative aspect of this trade not yet expounded upon in this piece is that it means that the Astros have now effectively (in the long term) traded Carlos Perez (who was actually more valuable this year even than Hank Conger was) and Nick Tropeano to the Angels for cash considerations - which looks pretty lopsided, on paper. It's true that we did at least get 2015 production from Hank Conger, and it was good production, but going into 2016 we're left with cash in exchange for two guys who are both featuring prominently in playing time with our division rivals, the Angels.
One might surmise that the move was financially driven, perhaps as a way to recoup some financial flexibility in the wake of Colby Rasmus accepting his Qualifying Offer, but Conger's modest $1.8 million projection (per MLB Trade Rumors) is not exactly a huge deterrent - he's roughly $1.3 million more expensive than Stassi or Heineman would be - before factoring in the cash the Astros received from the Rays.
At the end of the day, the Astros made another move to get slightly cheaper (and perhaps slightly more cost-efficient) and moved a catcher who, despite the fact that "pop times" are no longer the end all, be all judgement of a catcher's defensive abilities, still was miserable throwing out runners, performing at a 1 for 43 clip in 2015. It could easily speak to the idea (and has in fact been mentioned in several different places) that the Astros feel that there's something wrong with Conger's arm that they can't fix.
Perhaps the Rays will be able to. As someone who appreciates the value Conger brought to our team en route to the American League Division Series this year, I hope that's the case for his sake.
In the meantime, I will continue to trust in Luhnow and hope that the machinations surrounding this trade eventually make sense to me.