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With 6 catchers in spring training, Diamondbacks have a lot of options

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Southpaw prospect Anthony Banda lined up next to five fellow Diamondbacks pitchers on the practice mounds at Salt River Fields and eyed his catcher, Chris Iannetta, crouched behind the plate.

It was the third official workout for pitchers and catchers but the first time that the 33-year-old Iannetta had caught Banda. At times, Iannetta paused and offered advice on Banda’s mechanics. At other times, he praised the club’s 23-year-old prospect.

“He knows the game,” Banda said. “He understands young pitchers. It’s great to have him around, get to know the guys like that and pick their brains.”

Banda has quite a few minds to pick advice from. Five other catchers are in camp: Jeff Mathis, Chris Herrmann, Josh Thole, Hank Conger and Oscar Hernandez.

“We give each other feedback, we coach each other up,” Banda said. “I think that’s the best way to learn as a professional ball player – a young kid or as a veteran.”

While playing 11 seasons in the majors, Iannetta has made a tour of Cactus League ballparks for spring training. He has caught for the Rockies, Angels, Mariners and now the Diamondbacks.

He’s used to the early hours, the drills behind the dish and the process of getting to know his pitchers professionally and personally.

“After you see them two or three times you can formulate some sort of opinion and game plan,” Iannetta said. “That’s when you lean on the guys that have been here, the coaching staff, the front office; they find ways to help you get a leg up in understanding what they do and what makes them successful.”

There wasn’t much success last season when the Diamondbacks posted a league-worst 5.09 staff ERA. With changes in the team’s front office and a new manager, Torey Lovullo, the team has changed its backstop philosophy.

Offensive-minded Welington Castillo exited. Defensive-minded veterans Iannetta and Mathis entered.

Lovullo said he can’t predict what their roles will be come Opening Day.

“I can’t say how many games they each are going to play,” Lovullo said. “I do know that we are going to put our guys in the best position, whether it’s them personally or it’s the best matchup to help us get the job done on the mound. We have to pay attention to a lot of things. There’s a lot of little parts to it with these guys.”

Framing, bullpen leadership and game-calling are pieces of the puzzle that will make the backstop picture clearer for Lovullo and first-year catching coach Robby Hammock.

“Starting catchers catch 100 games now, 110 games,” Lovullo said. “That’s the new normal. Where that falls for our guys is yet to be determined. We’ll kind of define it as things unfold.”

There’s Mathis, another 33-year-old offseason free agent-signee brought in for his defensive WAR (wins above replacement) of plus-9.2 and his pitch-framing skills.

There’s Herrmann, an incumbent who brings the versatility to play infield and outfield positions, which Lovullo wants to explore.

Then there’s Conger, who once shared a role behind the dish with Iannetta in Anaheim during the 2014 season when the Angels won the AL West title.

Iannetta might find himself in that same platoon situation. His friendship with Conger helps keep the competition loose. He called him up as soon as he heard the news that Conger would be joining him in the desert.

“We’re really good friends, we talk a bunch,” Iannetta said. “It’s great, hanging around together and having fun at spring training. We joke around; he’s a funny guy and you get to know that pretty soon.”

Iannetta has only caught a couple of bullpens, mixed with young prospects and veteran pitchers. The catcher competition will continue to be a talking point as Cactus League games unfold.

Iannetta said the competition will play out in the next few weeks and the catchers “will have a clearer picture of what’s going on.”

In the meantime, he said his objective is to help the club’s pitching staff to be the best it can be.

“Everything else takes care of itself,” he said.

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