Jarrod Saltalamacchia's reputation is not what it used to be.
Once ranked the 18th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, Salty was the sort of player who drew the interest of every organization with a need behind the plate. When Boston came calling, the Rangers made it clear they would settle for no less than Clay Buchholz. He was a blue chip just waiting to be cashed in.
Then he spent the next few years shuffling back and forth between the MLB and Triple-A, and was finally shipped off to a Red Sox team about to lose Victor Martinez and enter the 2011 season with only Jason Varitek. In return, the Red Sox shipped out some low-level minor leaguers. While Roman Mendez is certainly an interesting arm, the price was a far cry from what it would have been a few short years ago.
For their money, the Sox would receive some decent production in 2011. Salty certainly exploded for a couple months in the middle of the year, and convinced a fair few observers that he was finally making good on his potential. But then Salty fell off, and fell off hard, finishing the year looking every bit like the old Salty: light on discipline, capable of providing a good few extra base hits--especially in Fenway--but ultimately a mediocre bat on a questionable glove.
Still, with their budget restricted and their options limited, the Sox were content to stick with Saltalamacchia behind the plate for 2012. It's an opportunity he can't afford to waste.
While Salty's position on the team is reasonably secure for now, pressure is coming in a hurry. Over the next year, the Sox will find themselves in the unusual situation of having options behind the plate. From within, there's the fast-approaching arrival of Ryan Lavarnway. From outside, there's the impending free agency of Miguel Montero, who apparently has no intention of resigning with the Diamondbacks.
At the moment, both options seem preferable to Salty. Lavarnway is essentially the Salty of five years ago, with all the offensive upside still intact. As a rookie, he would also come in noticeably cheaper than Saltalamacchia, who is already making $2.5 million in his second year of arbitration. The only negative is that Lavarnway is more likely to completely bomb than Salty, but that's not such a huge risk to take if Salty is only providing a .319 wOBA.
As for Miguel Montero, he's the complete package behind the plate. A consistent hitter who rates highly defensively, he could be the stabilizing force the Sox need behind the plate. While he'll certainly cost a pretty penny--expectations are for something in the range of four years and $50 million--that money could be freed up by shifting Lavarnway to DH when Ortiz is ready to retire, or shipping Lavarnway elsewhere to fill another role via a trade.
What could turn all this around is a big year from Salty. If he can actually sustain the midseason success he had last year, or at least produce on the same offensive level as Montero, then he becomes a valuable commodity who becomes a steal on a one year arbitration deal. Lavarnway can always be stored at DH, in the minors, or shipped elsewhere. The money that could go to Miguel Montero can always be reallocated. But to make it worthwhile for the Sox, he has to give them some level of production they can't be reasonably assured to receive from Ryan Lavarnway. He has to make himself a bargain rather than just an acceptable contract.
This isn't to say Salty's career is in jeopardy--teams are always going to be desperate enough behind the plate that he'll find work somewhere. But if he wants to be something with a team like the Red Sox, he's got to take this chance and run with it.