DENVER -- Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta's situation looks good, for now. But Iannetta knows better than anyone that how things look during the winter doesn't mean much when the season begins.Last winter, Iannetta signed a three-year, $8.35 million contract, and the previous No. 1 catcher, Yorvit Torrealba, signed with the Padres. True, the club brought in Miguel Olivo, a veteran who had played for several clubs and was coming off a decent year with the Royals, but the contract seemed to offer security. But before the season was a month old, Olivo was the clear No. 1 and Iannetta received a demotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs. By season's end, Iannetta had a .197 batting average in 67 games -- the lowest number in his four seasons with the club.
So even though the Rockies last week traded Olivo to the Blue Jays, who did not pick up his option, don't blame Iannetta if he's not declaring himself the starter. In fact, he politely declined to comment on the move, which would at least temporarily make him the starter. There's a long offseason of possible moves ahead.At the end of the regular season, however, Iannetta said the demotion just months after the contract signing was a surprise. "I didn't think it was cut-and-dried this is my job," Iannetta said. "But I felt like I had some security in the sense that I was going to be with the Major League team. I wouldn't have to worry about going down to Triple-A. "I didn't take any time off; I actually worked as hard as I always have in the offseason, so that wasn't an issue. I felt like I had a really productive Spring Training. I got a lot of work in, was extremely successful with the bat. Then the first 20 at-bats of the season didn't really go the way I wanted them to, and I was kind of surprised when I got sent down." Iannetta, 27, said the 2010 season served as a lesson. Iannetta has spent much of his career as the backup. However, in 2008, with Torrealba battling shoulder issues, Iannetta had his best season, hitting .264 with a .390 on-base percentage, 18 home runs and 65 RBIs in 104 games. He lost the starting job to Torrelaba in 2009 and dipped to .228 in 93 games, but still managed a .344 on-base percentage and 16 home runs. But when Iannetta's slow start and Olivo's hot one coincided in 2010, Iannetta couldn't find his rhythm in less-than-regular playing time. Of course, Iannetta would prefer to play regularly and be able to work his way out of slumps. Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said last week that part of Iannetta's struggles could be laid on the fact he hasn't had a clear opportunity to play. But Iannetta also said if he isn't playing regularly, he simply can't let his production hit rock bottom. "The place where I've struggled is making adjustments to a limited role," Iannetta said. "There are guys that are really good at coming off the bench and getting hits in clutch situations like Seth Smith and Ryan Spilborghs -- they're exceptional at it. I've come off the bench and gotten some hits, and I'm trying to get better at that. Playing once a week, every three or four days, I'll try to find a way to get better at that.
"A lot of times when I do that, I spend the first three or four at-bats of the game just trying to get timing because I haven't played. It's a battle. I'm just trying to work through it. Along with preparing for the season, I'm going to prepare for that scenario as well. I haven't been as good as I'd like to be in that role. I'm going to try to get better at it."Of course, the best way for Iannetta to avoid the issue is to win a starting job. Much of that is out of his hands. The Rockies are believed to be interested in switch-hitting free-agent catcher Victor Martinez, who could also be a right-handed complement to veteran Todd Helton at first base and leave semi-regular playing time for another catcher. The Denver Post has reported the Rockies have interest in trading for Angels catcher-first baseman Mike Napoli.
If the Rockies are interested in dealing Iannetta, there's no doubt teams would be interested in a backstop with offensive potential. But speculation about dealing him slowed when the Rockies hired Carney Lansford, who worked with Iannetta at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2007, as their new hitting coach. Iannetta was one of the first players Lansford called after being hired.There is no telling what will happen. But it doesn't change Iannetta's plan. "As always, [I'm] going into the offseason and prepare like I'm going to get 500, 600 at-bats next year, then whatever else happens, I'll go from there," he said.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.