Boston's Reason to Believe: What Do the Red Sox See in Jarrod Saltalamacchia?

Chuck PlattCorrespondent IIDecember 14, 2010

Saltalamacchia will get his shot in at being a No.1 catcher in 2011.
Saltalamacchia will get his shot in at being a No.1 catcher in 2011.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The big news today is that Cliff Lee rejected the Yankees. Red Sox fans have every right and reason to be delighted by this news. However, the Yankees did quietly sign Russell Martin this morning. The ramifications of Martin going to New York are not nearly as intriguing as those of Lee not going to New York, however they are still of particular interest to Red Sox fans.

With Martin off the table, the job of starting catcher for the Boston Red Sox now lays squarely in the hands of Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Saltalamacchia may not be the Red Sox catcher of the future, but he will have the chance to audition for just that role in the upcoming 2011 season.

Salty's opportunity comes on the cheap for Boston: a one-year, non-guaranteed deal that will pay out a maximum of $750,000. Without venturing too much into the realms of cliche and speculation, the Red Sox front office probably feels considerably more comfortable handing Salty the reins with a healthy Jason Varitek signed on for one more year, in what will likely be the final year of the veteran catcher's playing career.

But what exactly do Theo and Co. see in Jarrod Saltalamacchia? His name, alphabetically cumbersome as it is, is a familiar one to savvy Sox fans; Salty had been on Epstein's radar for the past couple of seasons before he eventually acquired him last July.

Every previous time Epstein had inquired about Saltalamacchia, the Rangers had asked for Clay Buccholz. Upon his acquisition last summer, Epstein remarked that "[Saltalamacchia] came with a real high price tag in the past, and we hope he's someone we're buying low on right now as he's battling a few different issues."

The "few different issues" that Epstein was referring to are a rash of injuries that have plagued Saltalamacchia the past few seasons, delaying his emergence as full-time catcher, talented or otherwise.

Saltalamacchia's brief stint with the Red Sox has been no different. Called up from Pawtucket on August 12, Saltalamacchia landed on the DL within a week with a leg infection. Once off the DL in September, Saltalamacchia's left (catching) thumb began giving him trouble, and he had surgery later that month to repair ligament damage.

The Red Sox have always liked the way that Saltalamacchia can swing the bat. A switch-hitter, Saltalamacchia is regarded to have below-average contact but great plate discipline, along with plus-power from both sides of the plate.

This is the same skill set that Jason Varitek brought to the plate during his prime, during which he eclipsed 20 home runs three times and reached 70 RBI four times. Varitek's contact issues have become decidedly more pronounced in recent season yet he's retained his pop, as evidenced by his seven home runs last season over 123 plate appearances over 39 games. Epstein believes Saltalamacchia can find a similar niche with the bat at Fenway.

However, what has made Varitek so valuable over the years has been his ability to call games. This ability is often listed alongside Varitek's skills as a clubhouse leader. However, it is important to distinguish the two in analyzing Saltalamacchia. The Red Sox are not looking for Salty to be their next team captain, they just hope he can handle a pitching staff as well as Varitek has been able to. There is an argument to be made that the only reason the 39-year-old Tek is back with Boston is for him to pass on those same qualities to Saltalamacchia.

2011 is Salty's shot at inheriting Varitek's mantle. If the Sox aren't impressed with what they see come July, don't be surprised to see a deadline deal for someone like Colorado's Chris Ianetta. The Red Sox are also keen on 23-year-old Ryan Lavarnway, who figures to begin the season at Double-A Portland. However, if Saltalamacchia stays healthy and plays well in 2011, a two-to-three year offer from Boston in the neighborhood of $10 million would not be out of the question for either the player or the organization.

Clearly, the hope is that Saltalamacchia still has the potential to be the player that Epstein thinks he can be. He'll be turning 26 in May and is still, as the scouts would say, "pre-prime." Judging by how Boston has addressed the catching position this winter, Epstein's hopes for Salty also appears to be mixed with sufficient confidence.