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Iannetta needs strong start to 2011 season

November 23, 2010

There’s no need to panic over the Red Sox losing Victor Martinez to Detroit in a free agent signing on Tuesday. The Red Sox will find a catcher somewhere. It would be better if they could develop one through their farm system but their best prospect is at least two years away from competing for a big league job.
One local resident intrigued by the V-Mart signing is Cumberland’s Chris Iannetta, who is currently employed by the Colorado Rockies. Iannetta used to be a hot prospect, a kid on the way up. The Rockies never showed much patience with the former St. Raphael Academy catcher, choosing to give his starting job away each of the past two seasons to veterans Yorvit Torrealba and Miguel Olivo.
You can’t blame the Rockies. Iannetta always starts slowly at the plate. His best season came in 2008 when he hit .264 and slugged 18 homers. Iannetta was 25 years old at the time and considered one of the rising young catchers in the big leagues. He began the 2009 season as the No. 1 catcher with Torrealba as the backup.
When Iannetta again started slowly at the plate, manager Clint Hurdle instituted a platoon system. Torrealba took to the platoon very well and hit .291. Iannetta finished at .228. Still, the Rockies announced that Iannetta would remain as their primary catcher for 2010. Torrealba accepted a one-year deal with San Francisco and the Rockies signed Olivo, who ended up starting 107 games when the Rockies gave up on Iannetta after 30 at-bats and shipped him out to the minors for a month.
It was a lost season for Iannetta, who would finish with a .197 batting average in 188 at-bats. His new manager, Jim Tracey, chose to stick with Olivo almost full-time in 2010.
Those are the basic facts. As the hometown newspaper, we should be proclaiming that Iannetta has been treated badly by the Rockies, and that would not be far from the truth. However, it is also fair to say Chris Iannetta has not stepped up and grabbed the starting job these past two seasons. He has opened the door for Torrealba and Olivo to walk through by failing to hit his weight in April.
Colorado did a shrewd thing earlier this month, trading Olivo to Toronto in a cost-cutting move. Olivo had a $2.6M club option for 2011 that the Rockies declined to exercise. By trading him to Toronto, they also saved themselves the $500,000 buyout clause. The Blue Jays were so thrilled to have Olivo that they promptly released him. This smells like one of those back-door favors general managers do for one another.
Meanwhile, Iannetta looks like the No. 1 catcher for Colorado heading into 2011. You can forgive Chris if he’s experiencing a déjà vu moment at this point in time. For all he knows, Colorado could bring the free agent Olivo back at market value.
The Rockies are also very high on prospects Wil Rosario, who hit 19 homers last season in AA ball, and Jordan Pacheco. Rosario, 21, underwent knee surgery and won’t be available until May. He’ll probably start the season in AAA ball at Colorado Springs. Pacheco, 24, spent most of his season in High A ball, hitting .321 for Modesto before getting 91 ABs in AA Tulsa.
So what will the Rockies do at catcher? The reason we ask is because Boston needs a catcher now that Martinez is gone. Boston general manager Theo Epstein expressed some interest in Iannetta last summer.
Maybe the Rockies would be interested in Boston’s current No. 1 catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has had a similar career to Iannetta, underperforming at the plate amid high expectations from club officials, media and fans.
Iannetta could probably use a change of scenery at this point in his career, even though he would be foolish to admit as much, even to himself. Chris’s mentality has to center on getting ready to put up numbers beginning on April 1, 2011. He has to bury the idea that he is a slow starter before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the 27-year-old professional.
Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, a notorious slow starter, has battled the same problem as Iannetta. The difference is Teixeira came in as a first-round draft choice with Texas back in 2003. The Rangers showed patience with their young player, something Colorado has not done with Iannetta.
Iannetta’s career is an example of the politics that lurk behind the scenes of major league baseball. His first big league manager, Clint Hurdle, managed Torrealba in the low minors and had a personal connection to Iannetta’s competition for the starting job. When Hurdle got fired, Jim Tracey came in and took a liking to the journeyman Olivo.
The Rockies selected Iannetta in the fourth round of the 2004 major league draft. As the former University of North Carolina star moved up through the minor league system, he became a prized possession of the Rockies, a young catcher with power and a strong arm. That’s a rare and valued commodity.
Iannetta reached the big leagues and got 77 at-bats in 2006 at the age of 23. A year later, he batted .218 in 197 at-bats. In 2008, at the age of 25, he hit 18 homers in 333 at-bats. Sports Illustrated touted him as a coming star.
Iannetta went from prospect to suspect over the next two seasons. Regardless of where he plays next season, 2011 is a pivotal season in Chris’s career. Will he start slowly, lose his job again, and fall into the category of perennial backup catcher? Or does Iannetta find the answer to his early-season hitting woes?
The stakes are high for this local product, one of the nicest young men you will ever meet, a person who demonstrates to us just how difficult it is to become a big league regular, even when you reach the precipice of success. It’s a good lesson for fans to understand. Professional athletes are not robots. For many of them, the road is paved with potholes, not gold.

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