Ask any Red Sox fan what the offseason priority is this year, and there's a good chance you'll get one of two answers:
"We gotta bring back Beltre!"
"We gotta bring back V-Mart!"
Adrian Beltre is, for the most part, a matter of availability. We look at the free agent market for third basemen, and we see...well, not much at all. The trade market doesn't necessarily offer many outs either.
For catchers, though, that's another story.
For a few weeks now, I and a few others have been putting the name of Chris Iannetta out there at just-about-every opportunity. It's not so farfetched a possibility --the Rockies were talking with the Sox about him just this summer, after all. The Sox need a catcher, the Rockies have a catcher they're not using, seems like a match made in, well, Colorado. Or maybe Boston.
So why are we so big on Mr. Iannetta? Are we crazy? Let's examine the Iannetta issue further.
The real Victor Martinez
First off, let's put a base on what the Sox are actually looking at if they were to sign Victor Martinez. Victor is, after all, what he is: a good bat who's not an absolute disaster behind the plate. He can be expected to put up a .360-.370 wOBA on a yearly basis (or about a .850 OPS). From a catcher, this is good. From a first baseman or DH, this is unimpressive. Let's be perfectly clear: the Red Sox are not looking for an average offensive first baseman or DH, they are looking for a plus offensive catcher.
Thanks to the fact that Martinez has been able to play primarily catcher, he's managed to keep his WAR at four or more for most of his career. Of course, this is partially because there's not much in the way of catching defense metrics. What there is grades Martinez out as generally below-average. He's alright at blocking pitches, but horrible at framing pitches and controlling the running game.
Iannetta is a lot like Martinez
Do his numbers look as good on the surface? No. At least not recently. In 350 plate appearances in 2009, Iannetta hit .228/.344/.460. Good not great. Then in 2010, he managed only a .197/.318/.383 line. Far below the Victor baseline.
The caveat, as I'm sure most of you have heard before, is his BABIP. At .212 in 2010 compared to a career .271, that is almost unfathomably low. Chris Dutton's xBABIP calculator actually puts him at a .320 figure given his batted ball profile. That's a pretty huge discrepancy. If we accept that this is where his BABIP should be, or even just around his career .271 (though it, too, is pulled well down by having quite-so ridiculous luck so early in his career), we have one real example of what Iannetta can be: 2008, the year his power emerged, allowing him to hit .264/.390/.505.
If I gave you that line alone, or even a .250/.370/.480 if you think he may have been lucky that year, suddenly losing Victor Martinez doesn't seem so bad.
But how is he behind the plate? To be fair to Martinez, Iannetta is just as bad--possibly even worse. He's not particularly good at blocking, can't catch runners, and can't frame pitches. But if we were willing to stick with Victor's defense, we should be willing to deal with Iannetta's.
The catch is in the cost
There's what gives Iannetta the edge. While we don't necessarily know if the Rockies are shopping Iannetta, we do know that if they are, they are likely still looking for "premium talent" like before. Signed at two-years and low-money, though, Iannetta is incredibly affordable budget wise. What would we have to pay for Victor Martinez? Four years of $13 million or more? How much is this "premium talent" worth to us, especially when we consider that any team signing Martinez will have to give us a pair of draft picks?
Consider, for instance, the very possible scenario of the catcher swap (the Rockies seem to be deciding between Olivo and Martinez more than Olivo and Iannetta at this point, actually). The Red Sox gain Iannetta, the 20th overall draft pick, a compensation pick, and $10 million in salary room. The Rockies gain Martinez, and a package of good prospects (though presumably not Kalish or Kelly). I know that the draft and payroll budget are separate, but even if we assume two big, big bonuses (Ranaudo level), the Sox are making out pretty well financially without taking much of a hit talent-wise (if any hit at all). Iannetta also can either be considered a long-term answer, or a very good bridge (pardon the word choice) into one of our various catching prospects.
Victor has been great for the Red Sox in the year-and-a-half he's been here. There's no denying that. But he's going to be in demand this offseason. He's the big-name free agent acquisition that just about any team in the game would love to announce to the press. But often the biggest names are not the best choices. Iannetta can bring the same level of offense to Boston as Martinez did--possibly even better--at a much lower price. No, this isn't about saving the Red Sox money, but it is about freeing that money up. What if the question is Martinez and Iannetta plus Scott Downs? Iannetta and bringing back Beltre? Iannetta and signing Crawford or Werth? It seems like a lot better deal then.
What ever happened to pitching and defense?
The other major consideration I can see is if the Red Sox look to take a new direction, and consider going the defense-first rout for a catcher. Catching defense being the enigma it is, this could be a fairly significant risk. They could pick up a catcher who scouts well defensively, but ends up being just another case of lying eyes, or they could pick up one who grades out well on the limited metrics available (and I'm sure the Red Sox have their own) only to discover that said metrics are drastically underdeveloped or inaccurate. Theo has never been reticent to lead the way on statistical analysis, but given the already tense fan relationship after a down-year, bringing in a catcher with bad numbers who doesn't project to improve them over the course of a season might be asking too much.
If that's the case, than Iannetta seems to be the best answer after all. Hopefully, he'll be availabe.