Jarrod Saltalamacchia's future has been in limbo since the end of the regular season, especially after the Boston Red Sox didn't make him a $14.1 million qualifying offer. Yet the free-agent winds seem to be blowing in his direction now more than ever.
The New York Yankees are to thank for this development because they reportedly agreed to terms on a five-year, $85 million contract with Brian McCann, the top free-agent catcher on the market, according to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com
Free agents are more likely to wait for the top player at a position to sign so the market gets set for everyone else; then they can talk to teams and make their demands based on what Player X signed for.
Not only did the Yankees set the market for catching with McCann's deal, but they also left open the opportunity for Saltalamacchia's return to Boston if the team wants him.
Certainly, McCann's deal with the Yankees has a ripple effect on the Red Sox. One of the worst-kept secrets of the offseason was Boston's interest in the 29-year-old backstop.
Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal wrote on November 4 that the catching situation behind Saltalamacchia suggested McCann was the object of Boston's desire this offseason.
But beyond Saltalamacchia, whose free-agent market the Red Sox could have undercut had they tendered a qualifying offer, the market for catchers is thin...
The rest of the free-agent class is a hodge-podge of mediocrity or worse -- except for Brian McCann, who at this point looks like Boston's primary free-agent target.
The Red Sox were also reportedly in on Carlos Ruiz before he re-signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. That's not a huge problem for Boston because the Phillies vastly overpaid Ruiz given his age and limited offensive profile against right-handed pitching.
McCann was the big fish in the catching pond. With him gone, Saltalamacchia's market will start to develop. He's almost nine months younger than McCann, had his best season with a .273/.338/.466 slash line and was worth 3.6 wins above replacement.
So what should the Red Sox do about their catching situation?
The Argument Against Saltalamacchia
There are two reasons the Red Sox would be content to move on from Saltalamacchia as a way to avoid overpaying based on one outlier season that happened to come in his walk year.
Boston general manager Ben Cherington doesn't seem like someone who will play the free-agent game of bidding just to get a player to sign. He didn't hand out a contract longer than three years last winter, which worked out well for the team.
Dustin Pedroia did sign a seven-year, $100 million contract in July that will run through his age-37 season, but he's a homegrown talent and gave the Red Sox a discount based on what he might have earned in free agency after next year.
But think of all the money Cherington has sent away in the last 15 months. Most of it went to Los Angeles when the Dodgers took Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett off his hands.
The other problems Saltalamacchia faces with the Red Sox could simply be the kind of player he is, the rest of Boston's lineup and what teams ultimately value in a starting catcher.
In an ideal world, every MLB team would have a Yadier Molina-type catcher who excels defensively and hits .300/.350/.450. Unfortunately, there are only one or two of those to go around.
Given the importance of defense behind the plate, a lot of catchers can hit like Jose Molina and carve out 10- to 15-year careers because they are great with the glove.
Prior to 2013, Saltalamacchia was never strong with the bat. He posted negative offensive values from 2007-12 and never had a WAR over 1.9 during that span.
His numbers spiked in 2013 thanks to a .372 batting average on balls in play, 50 points higher than his career mark, despite strikeout and walk rates that were in line with what he has done throughout his career.
The Red Sox should have one of the best lineups in baseball again next year. Even with Saltalamacchia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Napoli being free agents, the team should have plenty of money to fill any voids and return Pedroia, David Ortiz, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava.
We must also consider that Xander Bogaerts will be playing every day and Jackie Bradley Jr. is ready to take over for Ellsbury in center field.
In-house catching options for 2014 include David Ross, Ryan Lavarnway and Christian Vazquez. Ross has been used as a backup catcher essentially his entire career, though the Red Sox trusted him more than Saltalamacchia in the World Series against St. Louis.
Lavarnway got on the fans' radar two years ago when he hit 32 home runs in 116 games across two levels, but he hasn't hit since then and defense is not an attribute.
Vazquez might be the best option next season because of his defense, which includes excellent receiving skills and plus-plus arm strength that helped throw out 46 percent of base stealers last season.
He will need time in Triple-A, having played just one game there in 2013, and the bat isn't anything special. As long as the defense plays in the big leagues, which it will, the Red Sox can get by.
They also don't need to give Saltalamacchia a multi-year contract with 2011 first-round pick Blake Swihart taking a huge step forward on both sides of the ball at High-A in 2013. He will start next season in Double-A, but could be ready for the big leagues in early 2015.
Even with their immediate future at catcher unclear, the Red Sox have plenty of long-term options to choose from, leaving Saltalamacchia in a precarious position.
Also, the fact that Boston could have guaranteed him a one-year contract for $14.1 million—or at least gotten draft compensation if he signed elsewhere—if it made a qualifying offer but chose not to indicates it might have other plans for the position next year.
The Argument for Saltalamacchia
How rare is it to find a catcher who rates as (at least) an average defender and posts an OPS over .800?
Among players who caught at least 100 games in 2013, only Saltalamacchia, Yadier Molina, Buster Posey and Wilin Rosario met that criteria.
The bar for offense at catcher is so low that a player like A.J. Pierzynski, who hit .272/.297/.425 for Texas in 2013, can play every day because it is hard to find a better alternative.
Saltalamacchia also has something a lot of teams covet: power. He hit 25 home runs for the Red Sox in 2012 and hasn't hit fewer than 14 in the last three years.
There are problems with Saltalamacchia's swing and approach that leave a lot to be desired. He's never drawn more than 40 unintentional walks in a season, while striking out in 29.4 percent of his career plate appearances.
Yet even with contact issues, Saltalamacchia has slugged over .450 in each of the last three seasons. Even though it seems like he's been in the big leagues forever, Salty is just 28 years old.
Defense is not a great attribute for Saltalamacchia. His receiving and blocking skills are decent, though nothing to get excited about.
He's never had a good throwing arm. Even though caught-stealing percentages aren't the perfect measure for a catcher because a lot depends on the pitcher's move to home plate, Salty often bounces throws into second base and has only thrown out 23 percent of base stealers in his career.
Yet it is not hard for a team to overlook those flaws when it is getting the kind of offensive production Saltalamacchia can provide.
Also, even though 2013 appears to be an outlier, I am not entirely sold Saltalamacchia won't duplicate it. His line-drive percentage was a career-high 28.6 percent, indicating he was squaring balls up more than ever.
Sometimes catchers can take longer to develop as hitters because they have to focus so much on defense that there isn't enough time left over to work on the bat. Yadier Molina didn't become the hitter he is now until 2011, his age-28 season.
I'm not saying Saltalamacchia will grow into a .300/.350/.450 hitter like Molina, but don't be so quick to assume 2013 was just a fluke.
As for those in-house options I mentioned before, Ross hasn't played more than 62 games in a season since 2007. Vazquez isn't going to be ready for at least a few months into the 2014 season. Lavarnway shouldn't be playing catcher in the big leagues.
Even if the Red Sox have to go four years on a deal for Saltalamacchia, would that be the worst thing? They can phase Swihart in during the 2015 season and see if the market will offer a trade package for Saltalamacchia prior to 2016.
Another feather in Saltalamacchia's cap is the catching market. Do you want Pierzynski after his poor showing in Texas? Do teams want to put Dioner Navarro with a platoon partner who can hit right-handed pitching?
It's a wasteland once you get past McCann and Saltalamacchia. He understands that and will take full advantage of it to get a multi-year contract from someone, even if it means leaving Boston.
The Final Word
We have gotten so accustomed to these battles between Boston and New York that whenever one makes a big move, you anticipate the other firing back with a panic deal.
The Red Sox don't seem like they live in that world anymore. It's no longer about competing with the Yankees for headlines, but doing what's in their own best interest to keep winning championships.
It's hard to see Ben Cherington changing the philosophy he's worked so diligently to implement for Saltalamacchia (or anyone else). If he was going to do that, it would have happened with McCann, who is more valuable offensively and defensively.
Saltalamacchia is going to get paid handsomely for his services by someone this offseason, but it's impossible to say the Red Sox need him because of what we know about the way they operate.
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