The Red Sox were not expected to get a catcher this off-season. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was already in place as the starter, Ryan Lavarnway had a rough 2012, but was thought to be in the majors for good now. In the minors, the Sox had two options that could be added to the 40-man roster, both in need of protection from December's Rule 5 draft, in Dan Butler and Christian Vazquez. Here we are, though, a little more than a week before 40-man rosters need to be set, and the Red Sox have signed backstop David Ross.
Ross was the top backup catcher available on free agency, and in many ways, was more valuable than most of the backstops who might start somewhere in 2013. The market for catchers is very limited, with A.J. Pierzynski, Russell Martin, and Mike Napoli the only attractive options. If the White Sox and Yankees re-sign Pierzynski and Martin, respectively, then there are two fewer options out there, and if those clubs fail to bring their guys back (or simply choose not to), then they are going to be facing a limited supply of backstops to replace them.
Boston, with two catchers already in place, essentially took on an "extra" catcher, limiting the market further for those who actually needed to fill a hole. With word now out that the acquisition of Ross in no way keeps Boston from pursuing Mike Napoli, who wants to catch but doesn't list that as a deal breaker in negotiations, the Red Sox could take what little is left of the market and turn it to their advantage.
Napoli could play first base full-time, playing in a park that will likely reward his powerful right-handed swing again and again. He could also work like he did with the Rangers, spending time at catcher, first, and even designated hitter sometimes, to spell David Ortiz if necessary. There is not just a reason to get Napoli in Boston, there are multiple reasons, and regardless of the path that brought Boston to him, it limits the market for catchers for everyone else that much further.
Boston is already in a situation where they could deal Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has one year of arbitration remaining, to one of the clubs in need of a backstop. Two of his former teams, for instance, the Braves and Rangers, are both looking for insurance behind the plate. The Rangers have Napoli's likely exit to deal with, and their two other primary backstops, Geovany Soto and Yorvit Torrealba, did little to inspire confidence for 2013. Even if Texas wanted Torrealba back once more, he's a free agent, so that's not a given. The Braves just lost Ross to the Red Sox, at a time when Brian McCann has undergone shoulder surgery. McCann will be around next season, but at what level of production is a legitimate question. Having someone like Salty around on the roster, who will be relatively inexpensive and only represents a one-year commitment, is a good insurance policy on McCann.
You can be sure, too, that if Napoli is signed, Saltalamacchia will be the one shopped, not Lavarnway. Salty has shown himself capable of being a starting catcher, whereas Lavarnway has not at this junction. Having Ross and Napoli would give the Red Sox plenty of backup plans for Lavarnway that extend past 2013, as Ross is under contract through 2014, and Napoli almost assuredly would sign for two-to-three years at minimum. Since Lavarnway has options, as well, he can be sent back to the minors if the majors prove too much for him at this point, and Boston can then give Napoli more time behind the plate. (Possibly giving someone like Jerry Sands, who Ben Cherington has mentioned as a platoon candidate at first, with a spot in the majors.) With Saltalamacchia, they don't have the same options for roster flexibility that they do with Lavarnway, and with just one year left on his deal, there's less reason to make things work around him.
With both Napoli and Ross in Boston -- also known as the moment that roughly half of the worthwhile catchers of free agency are off the board -- trading Salty turns from something the Red Sox have been trying to do for weeks into something another club is likely to need them to do. This doesn't mean they're going to get a king's random for Saltalamacchia, but the need of another squad is sure to make it so Boston gets something. And, with all of the relievers and extra 40-man parts the Red Sox need to clear up in the next week-plus, maybe it turns into a larger deal than just Salty and his return. Maybe this is how Alfredo Aceves gets a ticket out of Boston, or someone like Alex Wilson, who will be taken in the Rule 5 draft if he's not placed on the 40, is packaged along with Saltalamacchia in the same way Kyle Weiland was sent with Jed Lowrie to Houston last off-season.
There are plenty of options for the Red Sox to explore in the next week-plus, options that become clearer once it's known whether or not Mike Napoli is going to be playing for Boston in 2013. As said, though, some of these options have to be explored very soon, as the deadline for setting the 40-man roster is fast-approaching.