Chris Iannetta Signs with M’s for One Year, $4.25 Million

marc w · November 23, 2015 at 7:46 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The M’s made one of the easiest upgrades of the off-season today, signing catcher Chris Iannetta to a one-year deal for $4.25 million; the deal also includes an option for 2017. Iannetta comes via Anaheim, where he was acquired by Jerry Dipoto from Colorado in a 2011 deal for one-time Angels prospect and starter Tyler Chatwood. Dipoto can’t quit Iannetta, but his obsession came cheap, and the backstop represents a clear, clear upgrade over a position whose production Ryan Divish astutely labeled NSFW.

The M’s made it clear: Iannetta isn’t a mentor or back-up to Mike Zunino, he’s the primary catcher heading into the spring. While Iannetta put up a slash line of .188/.293/.335, Dipoto referenced Iannetta’s abysmal BABIP (.225) and track record as proof that his 2015 wasn’t age-related decline, but garden-variety bad luck. Priced at well under 1 win on the open market, it almost doesn’t matter: Iannetta’s signing makes financial sense for the Mariners no matter what you project his bat for in 2016. His patient approach means he can stay in the line-up even when his BABIP tanks or his K rate edges up, as it did in 2015.

There are two trends that jump off his fangraphs page and complicate the idea of a clear “buy low” free agency bargain. First, his ISO has settled in at around .140-.150, lower than it was in his 20s, and definitely lower than it was in his 20s-in-Colorado. That’s not an indictment or anything, and again, his patience means it’s not as big of a deal, even though he’s likely to post a low average. He can be incredibly productive at that level of power, as he was as recently as 2014. The second trend is a decline in his contact rate. His walks have always been the product of a discerning eye, and not the result of great bat control to spoil pitcher’s pitches. Unlike Zunino, Iannetta simply doesn’t swing at balls, with an O-Swing rate under 20% in 2014 and 2015 against a league average over 30% in both seasons. Despite that, he’s making less and less contact when he *does* swing, with last year’s 71.2% a career low (except for a cup of coffee in 2007).

Again: these trends, paired with his age (he’ll be 33 next year), are warning signs, but they in no way make this deal “bad” or concerning or whatever. A one-year, $4.25m deal for anything north of a batboy makes financial sense in this day and age, and given the M’s needs at the position, this has the potential to be one of the best bargains of the off-season – his projected WAR a bit north of 2 should be worth somewhere around $15-18m, or 4X what he actually signed for.

His offense is what it is, but this signing is even more interesting on the defensive side of the ledger. Check the catcher framing leaderboard on Statcorner, and Iannetta rates as one of the elite pitch framers in baseball, a bit ahead of Zunino. By Baseball-Prospectus’ framing metric, the story’s identical: BP has his saving 14.6 runs to Statcorner’s 14.4. But wait, you say, why wouldn’t the market value this skill? Why doesn’t he command more money, even despite the lousy batting average in 2015? In part, it’s because in every year up to 2015, Iannetta wasn’t a great framer at all – he was lousy.

Is it possible that his framing “skill” is the product of luck? That the luck gods gaveth on defense and tooketh away from his BABIP last year? Well, as Eno Sarris described back in April, this seems to be the result of some serious, intentional work on Iannetta’s part. Iannetta mentions working with ex-teammate and current Astro Hank Conger on his body positioning and focusing on improving this skill. He seems to have been inordinately successful, so we can hope that all he needs to do is keep it up. The sabermetric nerd in me says “regress, regress, regress,” and that an outlier like his 2015 is not the final word on his defensive ability. But sabermetrics is still somewhat divided over framing in general, and the fact that the emphasis on it is so new means that it’s at the very least plausible that Iannetta hadn’t ever worked on it, and that his 2015 represents something much closer to his new true-talent level than you’d gather by compiling a career average. He didn’t know what to do, now he does, so we’re good here. It’s simplistic and I *want* it to be true, which makes me kind of suspicious (I’ve been an M’s fan too long).

If Iannetta’s defense is anywhere on the positive side of the ledger, and if his BABIP bounces back before his contact rate drops into the ZuninoZone, this is easily one of the best signings of the offseason – for the M’s, or anyone else. The market at catcher is an odd one, with a number of players coming off of injury – Matt Wieters, Alex Avila, etc., and a number of somewhat similar players like Iannetta, Soto and Navarro. Iannetta’s played in the toughest hitting park of that troika, and is easily the best framer, even if you regress his 2015 pretty heavily. The downside risk is pretty minimal, considering the money. If Iannetta’s BABIP stays low and he’s a .200 hitter, he’d likely *still* be more productive than Zunino, and Iannetta’s presence means the M’s can be strategic – finally – about Zunino’s developmental path. Nice work, Mr. Dipoto.


39 Responses to “Chris Iannetta Signs with M’s for One Year, $4.25 Million”

  1. Westside guy on November 23rd, 2015 8:50 pm

    It’ll also be good to give Zunino a chance to work on his swing without pressure. I don’t know if he’s fixable… I must admit I’m pessimistic on that score. But if he’s going to have even a slim chance to right the ship, it wouldn’t be while he’s trying to hold down the starting catcher’s spot.

  2. ck on November 23rd, 2015 11:40 pm

    GM Dipoto is getting the M’s Christmas shopping done early. Re-Sign Guti? Starter? Center-Fielder? Catcher? Check!
    Bullpen next ?

  3. Notfromboise on November 24th, 2015 2:21 am

    Ugh. I know 4mil is a drop in the bucket for a FA in this day and age, but I just don’t like this.

    Ianetta is 32 and he’s been declining the last 3 years. Zunino is 24 and has better years ahead of him.

    I’ll slightly disagree with Westside, in the idea that Zunino is going to fix anything with less ABs.

    I think I could talk myself into this easier if the guy coming in was a lefty to set up a full-scale platoon, but both are righties.

    Even someone blindly optimistic would have to concede that Ianetta is a pretty dang small upgrade over Zunino.

    FFS, Avilia’s a lefty and Navarro is a switch hitter. For the first time since Dipoto took over, i think he actually screwed the pooch on this one, unless it was made clear to him that the other options weren’t interested in Seattle.

    I *am* glad we did ‘something’. But this feels a bit like ‘something’ for ‘something’s sake.

  4. bookbook on November 24th, 2015 4:15 am

    The only reason I hold out hope for Zunino is that the collapse of M’s prospects/youngsters last year was well-nigh universal, from Zunino to Peterson to Kivlehan et al. Perhaps a new regime turns that around. If not, no one will ever care that Zunino was blocked.

  5. maqman on November 24th, 2015 5:25 am

    I agree it’s a decent signing at a reasonable market price. I too believe Zunino will eventually be able to hit MLB pitching.

  6. Notfromboise on November 24th, 2015 7:22 am

    Chris Iannetta’s slash line outside of Coors Field:


    My first thought is ‘holy smokes he walks a lot!’ Dipoto really takes OBP seriously….

    That is encouraging.

    Baseball Ref’s top 10 player comparisons by position include the immortal Ron Karkovice and Mariner hitting legend Dave Valle ….

    That isn’t encouraging.

  7. djw on November 24th, 2015 7:45 am

    Zunino is 24 and has better years ahead of him.

    Being under 27 doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to get better. Did you not notice how he declined considerably last year? How he *can’t hit*?

    At the end of the day, this signing allows the Mariners to take a non-major league player out of the lineup and start a ML player. Zunino might turn into something useful, but the odds are obviously against it at this point.

  8. eponymous coward on November 24th, 2015 8:13 am

    I’ll slightly disagree with Westside, in the idea that Zunino is going to fix anything with less ABs.

    He’ll get lots of ABs in Tacoma, and he can stay there until he can prove he’s not a complete dumpster fire as a MLB hitter.

  9. Westside guy on November 24th, 2015 10:11 am

    Yeah, I wasn’t clear – I am hoping Zunino gets an extended stay in AAA (or perhaps even AA). He seems like a good guy, and certainly has the respect of his pitchers. It’s not his fault the org mishandled him so badly.

    Having him serve as backup catcher on the major league team’s bench would be a bad idea for everyone involved.

  10. Rengaw on November 24th, 2015 12:41 pm

    As to why Dipoto, and probably Servais too, decided on Iannetta to be the starting catcher next year for the Mariners is they really know this guy. And catcher, unlike other position players, entails qualities that are hard to statistically evaluate….namely the rapport and interworkings the catcher has with the pitchers and the coaching staff. Sure the catcher needs to “catch” and hit a bit, but the catcher’s over all primary value rests in his ability to be a traffic cop behind the plate. I feel confident Dipoto and Servais know what they are getting in Iannetta and like it.

  11. bongo on November 24th, 2015 7:16 pm

    This is classic Dipoto – an improvement even in the worst case, with lots of upside for both the Ms and the player.

    Zunino’s OBP was at .230 last year. Even with Ianetta’s down 2015 year, his OBP was .293, and his career OBP is .351, so there is the potential for a huge improvement over 2015 Zunino. In terms of WAR, Zunino was -0.7 last year, and Ianetta was 0.7. In 2014, Ianetta was a 2.1 WAR player, so again, upside potential.

  12. Notfromboise on November 25th, 2015 2:02 am

    Thanks guys, for helping talk me into this.

    Yeah, researching Ianetta, i was surprised by the amount of free passes and the high overall OBP he’s posted. While Coors Field could inflate his power, a good batting eye is a good batting eye no matter the park.

    Not too hard to improve hitting from the catcher spot. Pretty amazing (via Divish’s article) that Zunino actually had the *highest* batting average for a mariner backstop last year. Ugh. And I thought the DH production from the last 5 years was enough to make one squeamish…

  13. djw on November 25th, 2015 7:36 am

    It boils down to this: Zunino is not presently a major league player, nor is he close to being one. Given his talent and cost, it’s incumbent on a competent GM to try to fix that, but it’s also incumbent on him to not delude himself into thinking that project is at all likely to succeed. A good GM proceeds from the assumption that Zunino provides nothing, and if he adds value it’s a pleasant surprise.

    There are some decent FA catchers but none are of an age where a multi-year contract is particularly appealing, this is a smart move: in the unlikely event that Zunino gets fixed (or Marlette takes a serious step forward), he can take over in 2017. If not, you can decide between the FA/trade market or Iannetta’s option.

    It’s fine and good for fans to hope for the best or be unrealistically optimistic about Zunino; there’s no cost to them if they are wrong. If Dipoto made decisions based on that optimism, that would be an indication he’s bad at his job.

  14. Dennisss on November 25th, 2015 10:53 am

    djw, I don’t think I am as pessimistic as you are about Zunino. He is a good defender at a key defensive position already. He has eye-popping power. This organization stupidly let him develop into a high strikeout, dead pull hitter who can’t hit a major league fastball and then rushed him to the major leagues. Maybe a new regime can actually give him time and teach him how to hit.

    With his power and defense, he doesn’t have to do other things very well to contribute. He just needs to not be historically bad at other things.

  15. djw on November 25th, 2015 11:37 am

    I get all that. As a fan, I like to indulge that optimistic narrative, because it seems so plausible, and it would be so nice to see. But he’s pretty broken. If you’ve got actual responsibilities for fielding a ML team you need to be more realistic about how hard it is to fix broken players. He’s 25 next year, he seems to be a hard worker who’s really trying, and nonetheless he’s been going in the wrong direction for two years. There’s no easy or automatic fix for this. I don’t think he’s some kind of crazy longshot to become a useful major league player, but it’s pretty near impossible to look at the accumulated knowledge about player development patterns and put his odds north of 50% at this point.

  16. heyoka on November 25th, 2015 1:57 pm

    Zuninannetta can hit over .200 this year.

  17. Ralph Malph on November 27th, 2015 9:36 am

    If nothing else, they can lead the league in guys whose names end in vowels.

  18. Notfromboise on November 27th, 2015 6:54 pm

    Now there’s a lot of murmuring about Trumbo (a guy Dipoto gladly traded away when he was Angels GM) is the next domino to potentially fall in the roster revamp.

    I doubt Dipoto has much faith in Montero to take the reigns, and i doubt he’s counting on DJ Peterson wowing anyone in spring training, so it looks like we’re going to be in the market for a first baseman.

    It’s a grim list after Chris Davis. Mike Napoli, Mark Renyolds, Justin Morneau and beloved former mariner Corey Hart top the list. And given the unlikelihood of trading Trumbo to bring back another first baseman, I’m sort of puzzled what the mariners have left in assets to improve on Trumbo. Yeah, he’s a defensive minus and a OBP nightmare, but I’m not sure what we have left in assets to acquire a significant upgrade via trade, unless we are going to strip the back end of our starting pitching.

    At this point I’d rather stick out a year of Trumbo hitting 7th and wait for a better FA class (with the outside chance a full year at AAA could make DJ Peterson a viable option).

    I worded it all weirdly, but anyone got a pulse on this? Or at least a better target to man first base next year? Could Dipoto resist Justin Smoak’s walk rate if it was offered to him?

  19. Westside guy on November 28th, 2015 1:22 am

    I wouldn’t read too much into rumors, but it’s not unreasonable to think Cruz might move to first base at least part of the time. That would open up right field for someone more in the Dipoto mold – rangy and athletic.

    But seriously – there are rumors about everyone. Heck, look at the Cano talk… even though there’s no GM that’d take on the last eight years of that contract. Don’t sweat the first base situation unless it’s spring and we don’t have a body to plug in there.

  20. eponymous coward on November 28th, 2015 8:05 am

    Could Dipoto resist Justin Smoak’s walk rate if it was offered to him?

    Justin Smoak’s 1000+ PAs in Seattle make him pretty resistable. His 2015 was better because he was in a better ballpark and mostly didn’t play against against LHP. You can’t platoon a lot of positions when you have 25 man rosters where there’s a 5 man rotation and a bullpen where you are carrying 7-8 guys, and Guti/Smith is a much better platoon than ????/Smoak (plus in a pinch you can actually play two OFers who are usually in a platoon arrangement, you can’t really play two 1B in the field at the same time unless you cough up defense at one of the positions).

  21. Rengaw on November 28th, 2015 4:25 pm

    I would like to see Trumbo get a shot as our everyday first baseman. True, his history indicates good power, lots of strikeouts, and low on base percentage. However, I did notice that he was one player that Edgar seemed to perk up. He had stretches near the end of the season where he was guarding the plate better with two strikes and drove some vicious line drives to the opposite field.
    First base has been a glaring offensive weakness for the M’s for years. Smoak seemed to languish for ever as we all waited for him to show us something. Logan Morrison showed us last season he wasn’t the guy. Montero, while burning up AAA pitching, looks fooled a lot at this level. I sometimes wonder if Cano could earn some of his remaining 192 million at first.

  22. LongDistance on November 29th, 2015 1:33 am

    Ghosts of Christmas Past.

    Cano. I think if every single one of us who reads and occasionally leaves a comment on U.S.S. Mariners looked up our comments from December 2013 … we’d get shivers seeing how clearly we all felt that contract had 2 years of potential in terms of getting the Mariners into the playoffs (that was the idea, right?) … and then beyond that it was going to become an albatross around our necks.

    We KNEW there was going to be a point where the line of declining numbers, nagging injuries, speed, and maybe even personal commitment, crossed and negated whatever positives, be it athletic skills or veteran presence, still exist. But we didn’t care, because we were Playoff Bound.

    I wanted it, too.

    But here we are, and … now what?

    Silver lining: even on the decline, if Cano’s healthy and even moderately motivated he’s not going to be a negative, let alone deeply negative, factor at 2B (ouch). But we’re getting into a new era now, with a new-style GM, where whatever Cano represents or represented, just doesn’t matter anymore. This is no longer Jack Z trying to save the furniture as the house goes up in flames. And something like sanity has returned.

    Cano The Solution is no longer. If it’s true he’s made sounds about wishing he was elsewhere, it wouldn’t surprise me. Because he’s just channeling what is going to eventually become a general fan and team feeling … as people begin to wonder what Dipoto might have been able to do with that money.

  23. Rengaw on November 29th, 2015 5:59 pm

    The best way out of Mariner doldrums is through trades. Free agency generally doesn’t pan out for the high ticket players. Building through the minor league system takes years of wise drafting, player development, wheeling and dealing. Jerry “The Trader” Dipoto comes to the rescue. Trading is what he likes to do and history tells us such.
    As Long Distance inferred, imagine what Dipoto could do with Cano’s money. Dipoto would never have offered that deal to Cano.
    It has been days since Dipoto cut a deal. I’m getting spoiled as I expect a deal a week.

  24. Notfromboise on November 30th, 2015 12:43 am

    I don’t terribly mind the Cano deal, especially when you consider his presence and friendship with Cruz helped lure Cruz to Seattle.

    Revisionist history, obviously Dipoto would not have fired out 200+ million knowing cost and team controlled Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Ketel Marte, and Chris Taylor were in the system.

    Or at the very least he would have traded Franklin and Miller before playing them out of position and destroying their market value.

    I also feel spoiled, been a lot of action on the Mariner front this offseason. Been lots to talk and speculate about. 🙂

  25. Mekias on November 30th, 2015 7:20 am

    I don’t think we know for sure what Dipoto would or would not do at this point. Just because he’s avoiding big name free agents this offseason doesn’t mean Dipoto is never going to splash the cash like we did for Cano.

    As for Cano, he’s still got a few great years in him. Considering his injuries last year and his 2nd half improvement at the plate, I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned in a 5 WAR again next season. I have to imagine his sports hernia hurt his mobility at 2nd base just like it did on the basepaths.

    Trumbo is scary with that 2014 season still in the rear-view mirror. That being said, I’ll trust Edgar’s opinion on this. If Edgar thinks Trumbo can do the job, I’m fine with him at first base in 2016.

    I love the Ianetta signing. Cheap and solid all-around catcher. Gives Zunino time in the minors to figure things out.

  26. Rengaw on December 1st, 2015 9:57 am

    My comments about Dipoto being more inclined to change the M’s through trades rather than free agency comes from the following:

    1. His history indicates he likes to trade. Granted, when he was with the Angels the team signed several big ticket free agents, but it is my understanding the owner called the shots on those.

    2. At his initial press conferences, when asked if he was likely to continue being an aggressive trader, he said yes and indicated that generally free agents came at an inflated cost to the team. He did sign Iannetta at what appears to be a reasonable contract.

    3. In trading you can move players and contracts that are not in step with the team you are building. This is especially true now with Dipoto just taking over the team. I’m thinking maybe he doesn’t want Trumbo or his $9 million contract next season. We should hear something tomorrow, Wednesday, as to Trumbo’s future.

  27. Westside guy on December 1st, 2015 10:20 am

    The rumor mill says that Dipoto is trying hard to offload Trumbo. I don’t suppose Arizona would give us a mulligan and trade back Wellington Castillo? 😀

  28. mrakbaseball on December 1st, 2015 2:54 pm

    Trumbo on the trading block the same week his movie is coming out.

  29. mksh21 on December 1st, 2015 2:58 pm

    Not a fan at all of Iannetta but the bar set is so damn low to clear if they get anything out of him it will be an improvement. If I trusted defensive analytics more (they seem to change every year) maybe I could cut Zunino some slack but simply getting a 220/280/360 out of Catcher has to be some type of improvement for jack you know what the cost of what most improvements are costing these days.

    Watching Rene Rivera put up a two win season in 2014 was hard to stomach but he was back to suck last year. Getting awfully hard to get Catcher, SS’s and CF’s anymore that stand out. I’ll settle for league average.

  30. Rengaw on December 1st, 2015 8:10 pm

    “Hello, Mark, this is Jerry Dipoto. Well, I traded you again. Baltimore will be paying your $9 million next season.”

    “Who did you get for me?”

    “We got a back up catcher. But listen, at Baltimore you will be replacing Chris Davis and compared to him you will be considered a contact hitter. So good luck and just keep swinging away.”

    “Jeez, I thought you would get more for me than a back up catcher?”

    “We will, as soon as I spend that $9 million.”

  31. ck on December 1st, 2015 11:06 pm

    Trumbo’s salary number can now be devoted to the expensive starting pitcher market. Iwakuma may not re-sign with the M’s, based on the huge contracts good starters are now receiving.

  32. mksh21 on December 2nd, 2015 2:58 am

    Let Iwakuma walk, sign Chris Davis…. Rebuild the Kingdome, I think I liked the slo pitch softball version of the Mariners much better than the “pitching and fielding” Mariners.

    “Hi I’m 250 HRs/year Seattle Mariners and I have direct TV.”

    “I’m pitching and big ball park Seattle Mariners and I have cable.”

  33. Westside guy on December 2nd, 2015 8:52 am

    Those good, slugging Mariners teams of yesteryear also happened to feature good fielding and good pitching…

  34. JMB on December 2nd, 2015 9:06 am

    Love what DiPoto has done with the roster so far. Trumbo may not have gotten much in return, but then again he didn’t offer much either. And Nori Aoki today, decent OBP 4th OF who can run a little? Yes please.

  35. bongo on December 2nd, 2015 9:43 am

    Offloading Trumbo and then signing Aoki looks good to me. Trumbo was a 0.8 WAR player last year, while Aoki contributed 1.0 WAR. The Mariners are saving several million $ and are improving the team at the same time. Just hope the PTBNL is not significant.

  36. Rengaw on December 2nd, 2015 10:53 am

    FINALLY, we have a legit leadoff or two slot hitter who in the last four years has walked a bit more than he struckout, can foul pitches off when need be, and doesn’t hurt you in the field or on the bases. Unlike a lot of Mariner left handed bats, Aoki doesn’t spend much time grounding out to second base. In fact, when playing in Japan, opposing teams used what was called the “Aoki Shift” moving infielders to the left of the diamond as the left handed hitting Aoki hit most of his balls that way. We should see a lot of Ichiro type infield hits with this guy.
    The question of the day……If Iwakuma resigns with the M’s, will the team carry two Japanese interpreters? Aoki has a guy who has been with him in Milwaukee, KC, and San Francisco who also works on scouting reports.
    I like this signing as I was in Milwaukee when Aoki played there.
    I think our outfield is set now. First base and pitching are left to be tinkered with…..go get um, Jerry.

  37. djw on December 2nd, 2015 11:38 am

    edit: I was confused, never mind

  38. Westside guy on December 2nd, 2015 2:20 pm

    Man, I am trying to remember if the Mariners have ever had an offseason that started off so busy and so fast as this one – but I don’t recall another!

    It’s certainly helping fulfill my craving for off-season baseball news!

  39. eponymous coward on December 2nd, 2015 3:02 pm

    Let Iwakuma walk, sign Chris Davis…. Rebuild the Kingdome, I think I liked the slo pitch softball version of the Mariners much better than the “pitching and fielding” Mariners.

    I was here in the 80’s and in 2013. They both sucked.

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