Talkin Sox with Dan

Where baseball fans gather for commonsensical, opinionated Red Sox banter.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia: The imperfect, obvious choice

Photo via boston.com

Brian McCann is Bronx-bound. Carlos Ruiz was gifted a three-year deal that includes a $4.5M club option to remain in Philadelphia. The best backstop left on the free agent market is unquestionably Jarrod Saltalamacchia. And it’s time that the Red Sox realize that Salty is now clearly the best fit for the team.

I can’t argue that cases could not be made for both McCann and Ruiz. I’ve ardently opposed the idea of paying the former Braves catcher big money over the course of five years (never mind a vesting option for a sixth year), but it would be silly to contend that McCann would not have been an immediate upgrade behind the plate. Ruiz, on the other hand, is a guy that would have made a ton of sense. GM Ben Cherington shrewdly presented a two-year offer that would have paid Ruiz more money on an annual basis than what he ultimately received. He didn’t budge from that stance, and the Phillies won out. The goals of the team that motivated Cherington to pursue Ruiz can still be achieved by re-signing Saltalamacchia, however.

By now, you are familiar with Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, two quality young catching prospects who will begin 2014 in Triple-A Pawtucket and Double-A Portland, respectively. Based on how Cherington has approached the catcher position thus far in free agency, it is safe to say that building a bridge to one or both of these players is imperative. A five-year deal for McCann was too long. A three-year pact for a soon-to-be 35-year old Ruiz was one year too many. Saltalamacchia for three years, however, is a smart compromise that gets both the team and the player what they want.

Ideally, the Red Sox would re-up with Salty on a two-year deal. It’s impossible to know for sure, but I’m going to make the assumption that Saltalamacchia is holding out for a three or four-year contract. I would approach him similarly to Ruiz–offering two years with an elevated annual salary. Maybe you can entice him. Maybe not. Because Saltalamacchia is essentially six years younger than Ruiz, I would be comfortable with a three-year deal at a lower average annual value. This would provide the player with some security while giving the team a little bit of insurance should Vazquez and/or Swihart hit a bump in the road, something that is pretty common among young catchers.

Saltalamacchia, however, is more than just a placeholder.  In 2013, he slashed .273/.338/.446/.804. Since 2010, McCann — who, to be fair, dealt with injuries off and on during that time — hit .257/.342/.444/.786. McCann just received a deal that could pay him upwards $100M. I’m certainly not advocating that McCann and Saltalamacchia belong in the same tier, but, despite his .372 BABIP, there is reason to believe that Salty, who will play the majority of the 2014 season at age 29, is showing legitimate improvement. I would expect his slash line to look worse after 2014 than it did at the end of 2013 due to the fact that his batting average on balls in play simply isn’t sustainable, but he is walking more, and that is definitely encouraging. Saltalamacchia has improved both at the plate and behind it.

Salty will likely never be regarded as a superior defensive catcher, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a serviceable. Sure, the majority of his value derives from his offensive production. That will likely never change. However, Saltalamacchia is an everyday catcher who has learned how to successfully handle a staff. Pitchers Jake Peavy and especially John Lackey have gone out of their way to praise the work that Saltalamacchia has done.

Overall, Salty can accurately be described as a league average defensive catcher. For the first time, he didn’t fade in the second half, and when David Ross missed a substantial amount of time with a concussion, Saltalamacchia stepped up. During the middle of June, with Ross sidelined, Salty caught both halves of a doubleheader. The next night, the big, burly switch-hitter was back in the Red Sox lineup. Saltalamacchia is not a defensive wiz, but he is a hardworking player who can be counted on to handle a veteran staff night in and night out.

We don’t know who the everyday catcher is going to be for the Red Sox next season. What we do know is that Saltalamacchia is an above average offensive player who can hit from both sides of the plate. Ross, a right handed hitter and plus defender, is complimented almost perfectly by Salty who is dramatically stronger when hitting from the left side of the dish. Saltalamacchia will go through frustrating patches that make you think he’ll never make contact with another pitch all season. Defensive lapses are bound to happen (see: 2013 World Series), but they can certainly be limited by simply making better decisions with the baseball. Ultimately, Saltalamacchia is a flawed player among a handful of free agents who all have their warts, but he is the best fit here, for what this team is trying to accomplish now and in the not-so-distant future.

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6 thoughts on “Jarrod Saltalamacchia: The imperfect, obvious choice

  1. Pingback: Daily Red Sox Links: Jacoby Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia - My Website / Blog

  2. Why not just go ahead and sign him for 4 years and then, if needed (if one of the young guys is ready), trade him after 2 or 3 years? By that time, with how quickly salaries are escalating, he’ll probably be making less than that future year’s free agent crop of catchers will be making. 2 or 3 years down the road he might be an attractive major league starter available with only 1 or 2 years left on his contract – exactly what the Sox are looking for this year. Some other team might be in a similar situation and jump on him, then.

    Of course, the risk to that approach would be if he tanks they’ll be stuck with him and his contract. But he’s still young and should remain serviceable for the length of the contract.

    • John, thanks for reading. And you make several good points. Three years would be my max. If there was a club or mutual option in place for a fourth year, I’d sign off on that.

  3. Pingback: Daily Red Sox Links: Jacoby Ellsbury, Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia | The Daily Inning

  4. Dan, I enjoyed reading this and think you’re spot on about the two-year window with Ross in 2014 and Vazquez and/or Swihart ready to share time in 2015. But I think that with Salty you are falling into the trap of believing a player is better than they are based on their most recent year.

    Salty had NEVER had an OPS+ of 100 or higher, or a .750 OPS, before 2013. He showed more double power and better line-drive and walk rates, but much of his improvement came from a .372 BABIP that is not sustainable. In his career to 2012, he slashed .239/.302/.418. I think that’s a more reasonable expectation for his age 30 to 32 years than his career year in 2013. A .720 OPS light on OBP may be near-average for a C, but it doesn’t qualify as plus offense from the position. As the large-half of a platoon, he has value with the bat, it’s true. But a career OPS under .800 against righties with the same low walk rate and high K rate is still nothing to get excited about.

    Salty’s defense rates average at best in most systems, and as a taller catcher his inability to frame pitches down in the zone for strikes is particularly troubling. I don’t want him behind the plate when Workman, Webster, Owens, Barnes and the rest are learning how to pitch.

    Finally, the money: Salty will expect something between Ruiz’ two years at $8.5 and McCann’s five years at $17. Say three at $36m or four at $44m. No way he’s worth it. There are still a ton of older catchers (Pierzynski, Buck, Torrealba, Olivo) who can be had for a third to half the cost on a single year deal perhaps with an option.

    Jose Molina just re-upped with the Rays for 2 years and $4.5 million. That would have been perfect, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Salty will get far more than he should based on a recent career year and positional scarcity, let another team make that mistake.

    • Sam, thanks a lot for reading and leaving such a solid, well-informed comment.

      I did allude to his elevated BABIP in the piece, and that is certainly a (huge) factor in his final stat line. I also don’t think it’s ridiculous to think that he’s improving in the prime years of his career. If we are going to cite his 2013 BABIP, we’re forced to note that it was a paltry .265 in 2012.

      I’m not willing to overextend for a flawed player like Salty. Will I overpay him for a short term deal (two years)? Absolutely.

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