On Sunday, amidst rumors that Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine and general manager Ben Cherington had clashed over how best to deploy Daniel Bard and whether or not Jose Iglesias should start the season in the majors, the always-excellent Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe published his usual extensive column of news and notes.
He eschewed the Bard question, but took on the Iglesias issue as well as the less-publicized question of whether Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s backup and probable platoon partner should be the veteran Kelly Shoppach or the rookie Ryan Lavarnway. In both cases, the message is, “Give the manager what he wants.”
Cafardo might be right.
Manager-general manager battles over roster design are as old as the game. Putting aside odd cases like Joe Torre, who even now is sitting in the offices of Major League Baseball, trying to find a place to play the now-43-year-old Bernie Williams, managers will always push for the higher upside player. Sometimes they’re right; sometimes wrong.
In 1951, Casey Stengel wanted a teenage Mickey Mantle to break camp with the Yankees. GM George Weiss thought Mantle wasn’t ready. Stengel won the argument, but Mantle nonetheless had to be sent down for awhile before getting his Hall-of-Fame career underway for good. Prospects have been ruined by being rushed; they have been ruined by being kept waiting too long. There are no perfect answers; only best guesses and then results.
In this case, Cafardo argues that, “Valentine is a superb talent evaluator and has a lot of faith in these two. Shouldn’t the manager be given the 25 players he wants when camp breaks?”
For a superb evaluator, Valentine has a very mixed record, but given the alternatives, he deserves a chance to show he’s wrong. Mike Aviles can hit a bit for a shortstop, but he’s no fielder, and Iglesias’ superior glove may well sufficiently offset the difference between their two bats.
I’m not sure why Cafardo thinks Iglesias, “will likely hit better than people think;” that remains to be seen. However, there is not much to lose and a great deal to gain if Valentine is correct. This is a decision that can be easily undone.
The most interesting aspect of the Iglesias decision is the degree to which it could affect a starting rotation that might be shaky after the top three. Sometimes, a great improvement in defense can spell a seeming improvement in pitching. That is something the Sox might need more this year than they do offense at shortstop.
Some of the same issues apply at catcher, although the incentives are different; defense is not the calling card of any of Boston's candidate catchers. All catchers need a reserve, and Saltalamacchia needs one more than most, as he’s not a great receiver and also is one of those switch-hitters who can’t really switch-hit; his career rates against left-handed pitching are .207/.262/.341, versus .265/.331/.441.
Veteran backstop Shoppach, a former Red Sox prospect, has hit .224/.315/.417 in his career. He has power, but struggles to make contact with the result that he hasn’t quite made it to .200 the last couple of years—his stay with the Rays resulted in .185/.285/.340 rates in 150 games. He is, however, a career .274/.373/.536 hitter against left-handed pitching. Over the last two seasons, Shopach has had one of the most extreme platoon splits you will ever see: .115/.208/.224 against right-handers; .250/.355/.449 against left-handers.
Unlike Shoppach, Lavarnway is a functional hitter. A sixth-round selection in 2008, Lavarnway, 24, is a career .284/.376/.521 hitter in the minors. He’s not considered much of a defender, which is a problem given that ideally, Salty would be matched up with a backstop who can do some of the things he can’t on defense.
However, Lavarnway can do one important thing that Shoppach cannot, and that’s hit right-handers, hit left-handers (he will almost certainly be better against them as well) and has the potential to play more than once a week. Most teams suffer badly when their starting catcher goes out for a glove-first backup. The Red Sox could actually be a better offensive team on the days Salty sits. That’s not a bad thing, whether Lavarnway is a good catcher or not.