Headed into the 2009 season, the Red Sox had no clue what the future held for them behind the plate.
Jason Varitek was clearly past the point where he could be an effective starter for the team. A .220/.313/.359 line in the 2008 campaign, combined with an embarrassing performance holding baserunners, the Sox needed to find the answer, before too long.
The Sox found a short-term answer in Victor Martinez that season, but with the farm system still trailing slightly behind as his contract came to an end, the team had to turn once again to outside sources, bringing in one-time top prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia in hopes that the player long-coveted by Theo Epstein could produce given a change of scenery.
Now, some 23 months since that trade, the Sox find themselves in an unfamiliar position. With a combined .365 wOBA their catching corps is good for fourth best in the game. Meanwhile, in the minors, Ryan Lavarnway holds a line of .320/.405/.489 in Triple-A on the back of an amazing June. What's more, he's played behind the plate in 58 of his 60 games with the Paw Sox, suggesting he's ready to take on a full schedule there.
So, with three men producing between two different levels, is it time for a trade?
The first person who should probably be ruled out for purposes of a trade is Kelly Shoppach, simply based on value. While he's hitting the best of all three, with a line of .276/.364/.540 which is, surprisingly, better against right-handed pitchers than left, Shoppach still lacks the value of the other two. At 32-years-old he's no spring chicken, and he's just one year removed from a terrible season with the Rays. He had value once, back when he was with the Indians, but at the moment he's not likely to bring much in the way of a return, and trading a backup catcher who's killing it at the plate for nothing doesn't make a lot of sense.
The question then becomes: do you trust Jarrod Saltalamacchia?
There's little doubt in my mind that Salty could bring some return at this point. Even though his 2011 season ended with mediocrity, the way it happened-with an amazing Summer only coming apart with the rest of the team in September-may have given his reputation more of a boost than it deserved. Now, with a strong start to 2012, that reputation is only growing, and Salty's value may be higher than it's been since he was exposed in his early stints with Texas.
Time to sell? Quite possibly.
The fact of that matter is that we've seen this Salty before last year. In fact, we saw a better Salty than this during the summer. But, of course, it all went to pieces by year end because he was fundamentally the same Jarrod Saltalamacchia as in years past: no discipline, high strikeout rate, big power. It wouldn't be terribly surprising to see him fall off the face of the Earth again.
The good news is that for some teams even Salty's full 2011 looks pretty decent. Add in his present performance, the possibility of something more, and the fact that he's cost-controlled for one more year, and you've got a pretty tempting piece for a lot of teams out there.
Unfortunately, the teams that would be most desperate for Salty are likely ones the Sox have no interest in trading him to. The Rays are out for obvious reasons. The Angels, too, are likely a no-go since either they or the Rangers are going to be competing for a wild card spot. But in the NL there are plenty of contenders struggling to find production behind the plate. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New York; even ignoring the teams that have slumping stars such as Atlanta, there's plenty of potential suitors in a world where John Buck brought the big money after hitting .281/.314/.489.
What gets in the way is the uncertainty of Boston's two other options. Kelly Shoppach is clearly riding a hot streak right now-to expect it to last as a regular starter is a bit much. And while Ryan Lavarnway has been excellent in the minor leagues, it's always a gamble turning to the prospect. Just ask Saltalamacchia.
That being said, the Sox are in a position where they may have to act fast or risk losing a great deal. While right now he seems a valuable piece, Salty's reputation won't survive another prolonged slump. They shouldn't force themselves to make a trade, by any means, but they do have to be open to the idea., and feel around for offers. They're about to have a lot of pieces lying around between the bullpen and outfield, and if Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the big one which can turn a couple minor deals into a major one which can get them, say, a good young starting pitcher, they may have to pull that switch.