While John Lackey and Josh Beckett are important to the starting rotation, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia may be the most critical player on the entire 2011 Boston Red Sox team.
Saltalamacchia was a top prospect rising through the Atlanta Braves minor league system, and he was in the line of young catchers who had potential to become superstars.
A funny thing happened along the way that includes some irony. On July 31, 2007, Saltalamacchia, along with four other minor leaguers (shortstop Elvis Andrus, right-handed pitcher Neftali Feliz, left-handed pitcher Matt Harrison and left-hander Beau Jones), were traded to the Texas Rangers for first baseman Mark Teixeira and left-handed reliever Ron Mahay.
Over the next three-plus seasons, Saltalamacchia struggled at the plate. His career batting average has dropped to .248 and, due to a surplus of catchers, he played a limited number of games with Texas. The most games he played were in 2009 (84).
In 2010, Saltalamacchia played like Rube Baker (the character from "Major League 2" who has trouble reaching the pitcher's mound, but he can throw accurately to any other position).
When Saltalamacchia was sent down to Triple-A Oklahoma City RedHawks, he used a timing solution; tapping the ball twice in his glove before throwing. There were points when he did experience problems such as one-hopping the ball back to the mound or throwing the ball into center field with nobody on base.
Late in the 2009 season, Saltalamacchia was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and he believes the ensuing surgery was the reason he developed poor throwing mechanics. There were injuries Saltalamacchia suffered through at the beginning of the 2010 season and he felt like he rushed back from surgery.
Scott Servais, the Rangers' director of player personnel, was constantly working with him to solve the issues. Saltalamacchia was making 40 throws before every game from different spots behind the plate. He changed his grip on the ball, bringing his fingers closer together, and he talked to sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman. Eventually, the Rangers' front office was done waiting for Saltalamacchia to come around.
On July 31, 2010, Saltalamacchia was traded again to the Boston Red Sox for three minor league prospects. The Red Sox have been looking for catchers over the past few seasons since Jason Varitek is in his late 30s and they have a revolving door as their backup catcher.
They have brought in Doug Mirabelli, Josh Bard and Kevin Cash. They traded for Victor Martinez, but he was an impending free agent and there was no guarantee he would re-sign with the Red Sox. Martinez would eventually sign with the Detroit Tigers in November of 2010.
Saltalamacchia hit .158 with just one run batted in (RBI) in 10 games and 19 plate appearances after the acquisition.
Saltalamacchia improved to the point where his throws have become less of an issue. He worked with Boston Red Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck in the offseason.
Boston manager Terry Francona, and fellow players, are impressed by Saltalamacchia. In last night's exhibition contest versus the Houston Astros, Saltalamacchia went 3-for-4 with two RBI and there were no throws into the outfield.
The Red Sox are going to need Saltalamacchia to perform like last night on a consistent basis if they want to win the World Series, especially with Varitek's recent injury history.