Since he's started playing a significant role for the Red Sox in 2011, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has caught the ire of the fanbase. The stars just haven't lined up for him to be appreciated in Boston. He's a guy who strikes out in about a third of his plate appearances every year, and doesn't play great defense behind the dish. Combine those two facts with having to follow one of the most popular players of the last twenty years, Jason Varitek, and Saltalamacchia had a tough road ahead from the beginning. Now, about midway through 2013, he has only a few months left before he can hit the open market, and the team has to look at what's next at the position. Despite the obvious negatives that everyone knows about him, though, could it be worth it for the Red Sox to try and keep their catcher around for the next couple years?
Saltalamacchia has enjoyed his best year at the plate this season, though, that may be flying a bit under the radar given the fact that he's also striking out more than he ever has in his career. To date, the big catcher is hitting .267/.338/.461 with a 114 wRC+. Power has always been the best part of his game, but his .194 ISO is actually his lowest in his tenure in Boston. He has offset that, though, by drawing walks more often than he ever has, and vastly improving his typically low batting average to a much more respectable level.
Looking forward, though, it wouldn't be wise to expect this type of offensive output from Saltalamacchia every year. That batting line is inflated by an unsustainable .401 BABIP. This isn't to say that he hasn't worked to convert that many batted balls to hits, though, as his line drive rate of 31 percent is eleven points higher than the league-average. So, when taking his BABIP down to a more realistic level, Saltalamacchia still winds up being something around an average hitter, likely with a little more power than he's shown thus far. Even last season, when he sported a low .265 BABIP, he still managed to put up a 95 wRC+.
Finding a guy who can play catcher as often as Saltalamacchia does - he's started behind the plate in three-fourths of the team's games this season for the second year in a row - while still hitting at a league-average rate isn't easy. If they were to let Saltalamacchia walk, they'd have a couple options. They could either hope their in-house options were able to get the job done, or they'd have to look outside the organization for help.
First. looking internally, the two names that come to mind are Ryan Lavarnway and David Ross, who have both served as Saltalamacchia's backup this season. Ross is under contract next season, and as long as he's recovered from his concussions that he has been suffering through this year, will likely be the backup option no matter who is in as the starter. He plays well enough to start for many teams around the league, but at his age it's too late for him to take on a full-time role for the first time in his career. As for Lavarnway, he has yet to show the offensive prowess he showed in the minors. In 283 career plate appearances at the major-league level, soon-to-be 26-year-old is hitting .186/.242/.300, good for a 41 wRC+. In a small sample this season (31 plate appearances), he is hitting .286/.323/.393 with a 89 wRC+. If he improve on that production by some margin, it may be easier to envision him finally taking the starting role in 2014, especially given his continued improvements defensively. In addition to Ross and Lavarnway, defensive wiz Christian Vazquez is also on the 40-man roster, as is Dan Butler.
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Should Ben Cherington decide to look to free agency to fill any void left by letting Saltalamacchia walk, the market isn't exactly going to be flourishing. The best available player will be Brian McCann, who has been one of the premier catchers in baseball for years now. The current Braves' catcher had a rough 2012, and started this season plagued by injuries, but has gotten back on track since getting healthy. As a good defensive catcher who can also put up well above-average offensive numbers, he should be getting a pretty hefty contract this winter, and there won't be a lack of suitors. Should McCann price himself out of Boston, the next best option would likely be Carlos Ruiz, though he is having a terrible season at the plate this season. After having a career year in 2012 when he was worth 5.2 fWAR, he has fallen off to the tune of a .266/.322/.294 batting line this season, with a 69 wRC+. The only other viable option would be AJ Pierzynski, who is far from a fan favorite, but is good for 500 plate appearances with slightly below average offense every season.
If the team declines to keep Saltalamacchia, the best play would probably be to try and grab Pierzynski with a one-year stop-gap deal and play him with Ross and Lavarnway, unless the latter takes the rest of the season and proves to be worthy of being the starter. If not, though, the team is in a tough position at catcher until Blake Swihart is ready to join the big-league roster in a few years.
Considering the options, I would be inclined to try and work out some sort of shorter-term extension with Saltalamacchia before this season ends and he can hit the open market. Lavarnway has yet to prove he's ready to take over the starting role, and the free agent options outside of McCann, who would likely become too expensive if he even decides to leave Atlanta, don't seem to be any major upgrade over Saltalamacchia. If the front office could come to a two or three year deal worth somewhere between seven and ten million dollars a year, it would be ideal for both sides. He would have a stable contract for a few more years in a city he has seemed to enjoy playing in, and the team has productive catcher on hand until Swihart can take his place, if everything goes to plan. He may not be the most exciting player in the world, but catchers like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who can hit at around an average level while staying healthy through the season without having to move from behind the plate, don't grow on trees.
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