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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.

Red Sox Offseason Notes: Napoli, Carp, Ellsbury

Photo via csnne.com

We are only a couple of weeks into the Red Sox offseason. The World Series trophy is somewhere, presumably in New England–where it belongs. Qualifying offers have been made and turned down. All is right with the world.

Here are some brief thoughts on the Red Sox, free agency, and the 2014 season.

— I think too many fans are underestimating the hole that Jacoby Ellsbury‘s likely departure is going to leave in the Red Sox outfield. Most of us know that Ellsbury is an excellent player. But because the Red Sox have Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting to play center field, some fans believe that Ells won’t be missed as much. Ellsbury was close to a six win (5.8 WAR) player in 2013. It wouldn’t be hard to make a case for him as team MVP. Bradley makes it easier to not overspend on Ellsbury, but he certainly does not fill the void the Oregon native is going to leave.

— My outfield next year has Shane Victorino in right field. No matter what.

— I understand why the Red Sox didn’t give Jarrod Saltalamacchia a qualifying offer, but I think they made a mistake. No free agent in the two years this system has been in place has accepted a qualifying offer. 22 offers, 22 “no thanks.” The Red Sox can afford to be aggressive with their QO’s. They missed out here.

— I would try to find a way to begin the year with Brandon Workman starting baseball games. Ideally, it would be in Boston, but if it’s in Pawtucket, I’m cool with that.

— I owe Mike Carp an apology. When GM Ben Cherington traded essentially nothing to acquire his services from the Mariners, I said that I didn’t think he was very good at baseball. I was wrong. Carp brings legitimate power, a coveted asset around baseball. He slugged .523 in limited time last year. WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford has reported that clubs have inquired about Carp, but the Red Sox don’t want to move him. I don’t blame them.

Daniel Nava‘s OBP in 2013 was .385. Victorino, Nava, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli are my ideal/realistic top five hitters on Opening Day.

— Where does Joel Hanrahan play next year? I wouldn’t be against bringing him back on a one-year, low cost deal.

Brian McCann should be a target of the Red Sox if he can be had for less than a five-year pact. It’s unlikely that he would sign a three or four-year deal, so I’m passing on him.

— The Red Sox should give Napoli a two-year deal with an option. Defense isn’t especially sexy, but the burly first baseman proved to be an excellent fielder in 2013. Power, on the other hand, is sexy, and Napoli provides plenty. Does he strike out a lot? Sure. But he sees a ton of pitches, gets on base, and fits in well here. Chicks dig the long ball, and I dig Nap.

— Napoli was at Tuesday night’s Celtics game in Boston. He was, reportedly, wearing a shirt.

Motivation May Fuel Red Sox in 2013

Photo via espn.com

If you’re looking to gauge what the 2016 Red Sox will look like, the 2013 roster is not a good place to start.

GM Ben Cherington unexpectedly and creatively unloaded three lucrative long term contracts last August. Josh Beckett (signed through 2014), Adrian Gonzalez (signed through 2018), and Carl Crawford (signed through 2017) were suddenly no longer in the fold, leaving the Red Sox a roster bereft of talent but provided the organization with plenty of financial flexibility.

Improvement was undoubtedly needed, but they were not going to put their newfound fiscal flexibility in jeopardy this offseason.

That resulted in a revamped roster that includes several newly signed veterans who have experienced success in the past but are coming off disappointing seasons. Cherington exhibited discipline by staying away from the Josh Hamilton‘s and Zack Greinke‘s of the free agent world. Instead, he set his sights on players with less raw talent who were willing to accept shorter term deals–guys who have something to prove.

Acquisitions via trade and free agency, combined with a couple of team controlled, soon-to-be free agents, have left the Red Sox with several key players who will enter 2013 with a tremendous amount of — let’s face it — money riding on this season.

And we all know that there is nothing wrong with a small fire being lit under a player, even if the flame is fueled by the dollar bill. In fact, that is often when the results are the most fruitful.

——

Jacoby Ellsbury is the most obvious and the most important player that falls into this category. The 29-year old center fielder recently agreed to a one-year deal worth $9MM, successfully avoiding arbitration during his final year of eligibility. Following the 2013 season, Ellsbury will be a free agent and quite an enigmatic one. We know the damage he inflicted on opposing pitchers in 2011, a year that saw him post a .321/.376./.552 line. Ellsbury was a hardware hoarder that year as he appeared in his first All-Star game, took home the Silver Slugger Award for his position, and nabbed his only Gold Glove. Do you want to make a case that he, not Justin Verlander, was the American League’s Most Valuable Player? Good. Do it. You can certainly make a sound argument. Scott Boras definitely will when Ellsbury officially hits free agency.

But he has a lot to prove. Ellsbury’s critics will point to 2010 and 2011 and claim he’s injury prone. And if he’s not injury prone, he is certainly a slow-as-molasses healer. It would be hard to debunk that theory. When healthy, the talented center fielder has the ability to carry a team for a long period of time. Barring any ailments during the spring, Ellsbury will enter 2013 with the opportunity to solidify himself as a legitimate candidate to receive a nine-figure deal in free agency. Should he spend a great deal of time on the disabled list or simply struggle to produce at the top of the Red Sox’ lineup, it will further muddy the water on Ellsbury’s value as a free agent. It is officially put up or shut up time.

Like Ellsbury, closer Joel Hanrahan is entering his final year of arbitration eligibility and is eyeing a big payday next offseason. Hanrahan was traded to the Red Sox from the Pirates earlier this winter in a swap that cleared some clutter on the 40-man roster for Boston, while giving Pittsburgh some salary relief. The power righty has already been given the keys to the car by manager John Farrell who swiftly and shrewdly made his decision to unseat Andrew Bailey as the closer apparent in favor of Hanrahan. That is good news for a player entering the most important season of his career. It also comes with added pressure. Bailey, as injury prone as he may be, is a proven commodity. He can close ballgames. If Hanrahan struggles early, Farrell may look to make a change. He is keenly aware of how badly the bullpen meltdowns of yesteryear affected the Red Sox in April. The pressure and spotlight are on Hanrahan. The stage is Boston. His response will dictate whether or not he receives the fat, multi-year contract offer he will undoubtedly seek next offseason.

Hanrahan’s likely battery mate, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, will have plenty of motivation this season to build on his 2012 campaign. The soon-to-be 28-year old switch hitter had a breakout year of sorts last season, establishing himself a legitimate power hitting backstop. Saltalamacchia is hardly a player without warts, however. He managed to post a .288 on-base percentage in each of the past two seasons, a miserable, yet consistent feat. He strikes out too much and is starkly better when hitting from the left side of the plate. Despite his flaws, Saltalamacchia is a catcher who has pop, and that’s valuable. If he can find a way to not fade as the season wears on, retain his power, and improve his on-base skills (even marginally), Saltalamacchia could be in line for a multi-year deal from a team following the season.

Saltalamacchia isn’t the only player with catching experience on the Red Sox who will be looking to parlay a productive 2013 into a big contract next offseason. Last week, Mike Napoli officially signed a one-year deal worth $5MM, a far cry from the original three-year, $13MM agreement the two sides agreed to on December 3. The reason for the hold up and subsequent $34MM reduction in guarunteed salary? Avascular necrosis–a condition that destroys bone due to lack of blood supply to the specific area. It sounds bad, and it is. But it was caught early, and according to doctors, should not get worse. Still, it cost the 31-year old a ton of dough this offseason. Naturally, Napoli will look to respond with a productive 2013 and prove to clubs that he deserves a multi-year deal. He is in the right lineup and the right ballpark to bounce back.

Stephen Drew is looking to repair his stock as a free agent that, like Napoli, has been marred by injury. Drew, a Boras client, agreed to a one-year deal with the Red Sox that will pay him $9.5MM in 2013. Once a top level performer at his position, Drew, due to a vicious ankle injury that occurred in July of 2011 and forced him to miss the first three months of 2012, did not garner a great deal of interest in free agency. With a strong performance in 2013, Drew will almost certainly see more teams bid on his services next time around. As long as Drew leaves camp healthy, it is hard to envision a scenario where he will not be the Red Sox’ Opening Day shortstop. He will have an opportunity — not unlike Adrian Beltre in 2010 — to capitalize on the ever-intense baseball environment in Boston. His ankle issues seem to be behind him. Health and productivity at a shallow position are all that stands between Drew and a much more memorable crack at free agency.

Cherington and the Red Sox are hoping to take advantage of the motivation that comes naturally with a player operating on a one-year deal. One-year pacts are essentially wagers entered into by both the player and the team. If the bet works out, the player almost always has a big payday waiting, and the team receives the benefit of a playoff run.

In 2013, the Red Sox will gladly go all in.

Handing Out Hardware

With the playoffs well underway, it is a good time to look back on the season that was and pick a few winners. I’m going to select the manager of the year, top reliever, rookie of the year, Cy Young, and MVP. Expect a short blurb explaining my choice following each selection. Both leagues. Boom.

Manager of the Year

American League — Buck Showalter. This is really a no-brainer for me. Showalter took a team that I typically like to make fun of, given their usual display of inept pitching, to the playoffs. The Fighting Showalters topped 90 wins and possess a brilliant bullpen — both of which are direct reflections on the manager.

National League — Davey Johnson. The Washington Nationals had the best regular season regular in the bigs. Read that again.

Top Reliever

American League — Fernando Rodney. He didn’t lead AL circuit in saves. Jim Johnson took that. Rodney, however, was spectacular. Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a pinch-hit walk-off home run off of the Tampa Bay closer in May in way in what was supposed to be one of 12 different jumping off points for the Red Sox. It was a blip on the radar for Rodney was downright dominant. His .60 ERA was the best by any reliever who tossed more than 50 frames. Cy Young votes are in order.

National League — Craig Kimbrel. You could make a good case for Aroldis Chapman, but Kimbrel is my guy here. He allowed seven earned runs all season, led the NL in saves, and is about as reliable as it gets.

Rookie of the Year

American League — Mike Trout. And I refuse to get into why.

National League — Bryce Harper. It might seem like I’m copping out, but I’m not. It was a tough choice. Todd Frazier is a guy I like a lot–kid’s a good player. And he looks like a true big leaguer. But Harper is the real deal, the total package. He was two bags away from a 20-20 season and scored 98 runs. His promotion was not a sure thing, but his arrival has been. Get your proverbial popcorn ready.

Cy Young

American League — David Price. If you lead the league in wins (20) and ERA (2.56), you’re probably going to get my vote. If you’re putting up those numbers while conducting business in the AL East, you’re definitely getting my vote.

National League — R.A. Dickey. I will be perfectly honest here — my gut reaction is to look for a guy who isn’t Dickey, who isn’t throwing a knuckleball consistently. It’s probably that same train of thought that led Tony La Russa to start Matt Cain in the All-Star game. Let’s not make the same poor decision. Dickey was the best pitcher in the Senior Circuit in 2012. A sub-3 ERA, 230 punch-outs, and 20 wins does the trick for me. Long live the knuck.

MVP

American League — Mike Trout. If Ted Williams can win the Triple Crown and not win the MVP, then so can Miguel Cabrera. There is no clear-cut choice here. There are no wrong answers. No one is an idiot for choosing Cabrera over Trout. If you believe Trout is the Most Valuable Player, that does not mean you’ve turned your back on traditional baseball statistics. It’s funny how a MVP race can turn into a New School vs. Old School statistical holy war. Let’s please not make it that–it takes away from what these two super special players have done in 2012.

I love Cabrera. I really do. He is like Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting. Hunting finds organic chemistry to be easy, second nature. He doesn’t have to try to learn advanced mathematics–he just gets it. Cabrera is a pure, natural hitter. Some people were just put on this planet to hit. It is power and precision at its finest. All of that said, Trout is still my choice.

Trout’s defensive prowess in center field was second to none. When he wasn’t scaling fences, he was running down balls that were gappers off of the bat. His combination of speed and power is truly remarkable. He scored 129 runs and stole 49 bases. His OBP was .399. Trout’s impact on the Angels was tangible when he was recalled. His fingerprint was on nearly every game he played in. He was the Most Valuable Player of the American League.

National League — Ryan Braun. He’s not going to win the MVP. And it’s because of his positive drug test from this time last year. It’s 2012, not 2011, and Braun hit nine more home runs than he did yesteryear when he won the MVP. He stole 30 bases and got on base at a .391 clip. It wouldn’t be difficult to make the argument that Braun had a better year than he did in his MVP campaign in 2011. Buster Posey is absolutely excellent, but I dare you to remove the stigma of Braun’s positive test from last year and vote for someone else. I’m not sure you can.

Ryan Kalish is Needed in Boston

Ryan Kalish should be in the next available Lincoln Town Car that takes him from McCoy Stadium to T.F. Green Airport and on a plane that heads for either South Beach or the North Side.

Either way, he needs to be up with the big boys. Now.

Since being deemed healthy enough to participate in games, Kalish has shined. In a small 13-game sample that spans from High-A ball to Triple-A, the 24-year old outfielder has hit at a .367/.475/.673 clip with an eye-popping OPS of 1.148. He’s launched four home runs, swiped two bags, and drawn nine walks.

This isn’t just some sort of aberration by a minor league standout. Kalish is a guy who has already showcased his talents on the major league level.

In 2010, the left handed hitter was called to Boston during the latter half of the season. The Red Sox were in need. In 53 games, he slugged four home runs, drove in 24 runs, and stole 10 bases. He navigated center field like a veteran (e.g., diving, tumbling catch in Tampa). Kalish looked like a kid that belonged.

Injuries derailed Kalish’s ability to immediately solidify himself as a fixture in the Red Sox outfield. Nevertheless, the Red Sox front office held enough confidence in Kalish to deal Josh Reddick to the Athletics. That’s the same Reddick who has 14 home runs this season in a cavernous home ballpark.

The point is that Kalish possesses both the pedigree and the production that warrants a promotion. More importantly, like in 2010, there is a need.

Offensively, the Red Sox have been potent this season. They’re second in the American League in runs scored and fifth in slugging percentage. Batting average? They’re third.  As of late, however, they have been stagnant to say the least.  In their past five games, the Red Sox have scored 12 runs. That’s an average of 2.4 runs per game. Good luck winning ballgames at that rate.

Over the course of those five games, the Red Sox have faced quality pitching courtesy of both the Nationals and the Marlins. Whether it is Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, or Josh Johnson toeing the rubber, scoring runs is not going to be easy, even if you have a lineup that consists of guys who flat out mash. And the Red Sox lineup certainly does not possess the thump that’s needed to combat quality starting pitching.

Right now, who are you confident in to get a hit, let alone a big hit? David Ortiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are the only acceptable answers. Adrian Gonzalez is mired in a prolonged slump that forces followers of the team to count the number of walks, rather than home runs. Dustin Pedroia‘s thumb is not right, and, as a result, neither is he. Kevin Youkilis is either too busy grounding out to the left side or yelling at an umpire to actually care that he has been miserable at the dish since returning from the disabled list.

Have there been honorable contributions from Ryan Sweeney, Daniel Nava, and Mike Aviles? Absolutely. And they should be damn proud of themselves. At some point, however, good pitching beats mediocre hitting. And when the hitting isn’t very good to begin with, the good pitching makes said hitting look even worse.

Kalish is a polished, young hitter who can make an immediate impact on a team that is starving for a spark. The Red Sox have been lackluster against right handed pitching. Kalish would help. Their bench lacks any sort of substance. The broad shouldered kid from Jersey would help create roster depth.

If the Red Sox were ten games over .500, it would make sense for Kalish to remain in Triple-A Pawtucket in order to get back into baseball shape. But they’re not. They’re 30-32 and have exactly 100 games left to turn their season season around.

Reinforcements are needed. There is one less than sixty minutes away from Boston. Kalish should be playing with the Red Sox.

Some, if not many, will disagree. And their reasons are valid.

I recently had an exchange with the Providence Journal’s Brian MacPherson–who does an excellent job covering the Red Sox. MacPherson indirectly raised a fair point: Who do the Sox part with in order to make room for Kalish? MacPherson believes it would have to be Scott Podsednik, who has been better than good since getting called up. Here is a portion of our conversation via Twitter:

MacPherson’s point is well-taken. Nevertheless, whether it is a Podsednik decline, a Nava DL stint, or a different roster move all together, Kalish will impact the 2012 Red Sox at some point this season.

Eventually, no matter what, the cream will rise to the top.

Things to Watch For This Weekend

Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals rolled into Fenway Park on Friday night and won the first game of a three game set against the Red Sox. Strasburg was electric, using all of his pitches effectively. The guy looked good. Harper went bridge to most cavernous area of Fenway–the apex of the triangle in center field. He also made an above average catch as he tracked down a hooking liner off Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s bat. He is a concoction of both Five Hour Energy and Red Bull. I was impressed. Let’s examine some other points of interest as the series continues on Saturday.

One of the most frustrating things is baseball is when a pitcher goes out and gives up runs after his offense provides him support. This was on display last night when Felix Doubront surrendered three runs in the top of the third inning after the Red Sox drew first blood in the bottom half of the second. With two outs in the bottom of the second inning, Mike Aviles smacked a clutch two-out double to left center, scoring two runs. Strasburg, at the time, seemed to look human. Doubront promptly went out and let three runs cross the plate the next half inning. So, so frustrating. Baseball is a game of momentum, and a one-two-three inning in the top of the third could have seriously changed the complexion of the game.

Daisuke Matsuzaka is back. Damn it. I’m half kidding. Dice-K will pitch Saturday afternoon for the Red Sox for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery last year. This will undoubtedly be his final year in a Sox uniform, and maybe, just maybe, he can bring something to the table. Hope resides in the idea that Bobby Valentine may have some sort of a positive impact on him due to his ability to speak Matsuzaka’s native language. Time will tell, but if I wouldn’t place any kind of a substantial bet on the Japanese import.

Gio Gonzalez was close to becoming a member of the Red Sox, but the deal fell through. It would have included new fan-favorite Will Middlebrooks along with other prospects like Josh Reddick. The Sox would have likely landed Ryan Sweeney, Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey. Instead, the Athletics and Nationals brokered a deal that sent the young south paw to the nation’s capital, where he has been excellent. Gonzalez will tote a 2.31 ERA to the mound on Saturday.

Baseball is all about winning two out of three. Middle games in three game sets are vital. Think about it. If your club wins the first game of the series, then, a day later, takes the second game, you’ve already won the series. The final game is gravy. If your team drops the first game but is able to snag a W in the next game, you at least put yourself in a position to win the series with a victory in the final contest. So, if you’re the Red Sox, stack your lineup full of right handed hitters and grab a win Saturday–because then you’re only one win away from having an extremely successful weekend.

It’s easy to get down on Kevin Youkilis. I mean he did go down looking on a fastball in a 3-2 count with the bases loaded against Strasburg on Friday. Youkilis argued, probably to save face, and was ejected. The ballgame was essentially decided then and there. I’m not someone who believes that just because a player helped win a championship or two he must always receive the benefit of the doubt, but Youkilis is still an asset. He’s in a tough spot on a team where there isn’t a ton of flexibility at the corners. I wish there was a way to utilize both Middlebrooks and Youkilis, but it just may not be possible. I’d be surprised if Middlebrooks wasn’t in the lineup Saturday.

As a piece of advice, try not to let your new found affinity for the young, talented Middlebrooks manifest itself into hate or disdain for Youkilis. If you had a team of 25 Youks, you’d win a lot of games.

Shopping for a Catcher

The Red Sox do not have a surplus of many of things. Wins are a good example of something they certainly do not have an excess of. Their outfield that once played host to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury is now home to Daniel Nava and Ryan Sweeney. Alfredo Aceves was once a strong candidate to break camp as a member of the rotation. A freak thumb injury to Andrew Bailey, combined with Red Sox brass’ steadfast belief that Daniel Bard is best served as a starter, thrust Aceves into the role of closer. The minute they thought that had six viable starting pitchers, Aaron Cook’s knee was gashed by a spike, landing him on the disabled list.

The 2012 version of the Boston Red Sox is not exactly dripping with depth.

They do have catching, however. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is posting a so-so  slash line of .250/.281/.512. He has shown a knack for hitting the ball out of the ballpark on the young season. Salty’s gone bridge five times. The 27-year old was once a highly touted prospect and a former first round pick. He has the pedigree and is still developing at an extremely demanding position. Kelly Shoppach mashes lefties and seems to be vaulting into the position of personal catcher for Josh Beckett. It should not be ignored that on Monday night, Shoppach caught Jon Lester‘s complete game against the Mariners. Whether it is factual or not, pitchers seem to be more comfortable working with Shoppach. Finally, Ryan Lavarnway is biding his time at Triple-A Pawtucket. He certainly looks like the catcher of the future or at least a power bat from the right side.

Compared to the catching situations for the Angels and the Nationals, the Red Sox look like they have Ivan Rodriguez, Johnny Bench, and Yogi Berra.

In Washington, the backstops are dropping early and often. Wilson Ramos, a talented young catcher, is likely out for the duration of the season with a right knee injury. On Monday night, Ramos’ replacement, Sandy Leon, a rookie, fell victim to a high right ankle sprain courtesy of the Padres’ Chase Headley during a play at the plate. Out West, the Angels are suffering a similar fate. Chris Iannetta will be out for the best part of two months following wrist surgery. Their top catching prospect, Hank Conger, is currently on the shelf as well.

So this tweet from the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo does not come as much of a suprise:

Conveniently enough, as I mentioned previously, Shoppach caught Lester’s masterful performance last night. He also went very deep to left field, just for good measure. He is a veteran guy, playing under a one-year deal at short money. John Heyman of CBSSports.com sees a tremendous amount of interest brewing around baseball in Shoppach.

This is an interesting situation for GM Ben Cherington and the Red Sox. It’s not like they are openly showcasing their catchers, but other organizations are in need, and, in this situation, the Red Sox have. But what does it all mean?

Ryan Lavarnway is not going anywhere. He hasn’t hit his stride in the International League as of yet, but he is as close to a proven commodity as a prospect can get. Saltalamacchia is not your typical bridge player. The Sox have Mike Aviles keeping Jose Iglesias‘ seat warm, but I do not get the impression that Salty is strictly a placeholder. That is not to say that he is untradeable. If the right deal came along, I believe Cherington would be willing to part with Saltalamacchia. That would be the ultimate vote of confidence for Lavarnway.

Shoppach is the most interesting piece in all of this. At first glance, he is the most tradeable catching commodity the Red Sox have. But is role on this team has expanded. Valentine openly stated that he was not in favor of his pitchers having personal catchers, but it would be moronic to say that Shoppach has not evolved into Beckett’s new version of Jason Varitek. After Lester’s best performance of the year on Monday, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shoppach behind the dish for the lefty’s next turn.

It will be a curious situation to monitor over the course of the next several days. In all likelihood, the Red Sox will not make a deal. But I would be extremely surprised to hear that they did not listen.

Quick Hits

  • Kevin Youkilis took a Philip Humber offering over the right field wall in the top of the third inning. Three of his teammates happened to be on base at the time. Youkilis’ grand slam was an encouraging sign. He is at his best when he is taking the ball to the opposite field. It was nice to see him drive the pitch the way he did as well.
  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia plated three runs and hit two round trippers last night.  Salty is an easy target when it comes to criticism because Ryan Lavarnway‘s major league ready bat awaits in Pawtucket, but he is a guy who will put up more than acceptable numbers, especially for a catcher. Saltalamacchia’s 2-25 start is a distant memory. As it always it when it comes to baseball, patience is key.
  • Felix Doubront threw 110 pitches over six full innings last night. I like what I see from Doubront. Once he begins hitting the outside corner on a more consistent basis/umpires giving him that call, Doubront’s pitch count with decrease, allowing him to go deeper in games.
  • When the Red Sox were at their lowest points in this early season, we noted that the offense had consistently showed resiliency in the later innings. They had come from behind on several occasions in Detroit and Toronto. The Sox bats are not waiting until the eighth or ninth innings to do their damage any longer.
  •  Mike Aviles may not be as patient as you would like a leadoff hitter, but he has embraced his role. The guy is scorching hot. He is setting the table and driving in runs. It’s nice to see the offense support the pitching staff the way it has.

Remaking an Identity

Whether it was used in the context of consolation or with connotations of projected failure, one point has remained consistent since the end of the 2011 season: The 2012 version of the Boston Red Sox will look extremely similar on the field to last year’s team.

And that is largely true. Let’s give the diamond a once-over. Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be the starting backstop again. A healthy Kevin Youkilis will be stationed at third base. Shortstop has a statistical doppelganger to Marco Scutaro in the form of Mike Aviles. Dustin Pedroia is primed for another super solid season at second base. To Pedroia’s left is the ever-smooth Adrian Gonzalez. In right field, a platoon of the defensively astute Ryan Sweeney and soon-to-be fan favorite Cody Ross will make everyone really hate J.D. Drew. Jacoby Ellsbury will again roam the real estate in center field. Eventually, Carl Crawford will be back in the shadow of the Green Monster.

The starting pitching staff? Love ‘em or hate ‘em–the main pieces are still in place.

However, the bullpen, the special teams of baseball, has undergone a makeover. Every other aspect of the 2012 Red Sox looks extremely similar to the 2011 version. The guys sitting behind the fence in right field, on the other hand, are quite different.

Over the course of the past couple of years, fans had gotten used to the end-of-the-game routine. Eighth inning-straight gas from Daniel Bard-Ninth inning-a steady dose of fastballs and splitters from Jonathan Papelbon-Postgame-“I’m Shipping Up to Boston”. No matter how last season ended, no matter what you think of Papelbon in the wake of his comments about the intelligence of Red Sox fans–things were good. Really good.

Bard has traded the grittiness of being a bullpen guy for the routinized schedule of a fourth starter. Papelbon will close down games for the Phillies in the National League, and “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” will cease to play at the culmination of the ninth frame.

Instead, Mark Melancon, a former Yankee who was once deemed a potential successor to Mariano Rivera, will slot into Bard’s old role. Andrew Bailey, a two-time All-Star who was acquired from the Athletics, will be the new closer of the Red Sox. Bailey, a Jersey kid, will not have the Dropkick Murphy’s belting out lyrics for his entrance song.

Things are starkly different.

Alfredo Aceves has been downright dirty in game action this spring. Officially, he is competing for the fifth spot in the rotation. In reality, he will be in the bullpen serving as a guy who can flat get guys out. Michael Bowden is out of options and seems to have developed a nice relationship with manager Bobby Valentine as well as pitching coach Bob McClure. Oh, and he’s pitched pretty damn well. I’d expect him to earn a spot in the bullpen to begin the year. Vicente Padilla is a guy who is similar to Aceves. A bit hot headed? Sure. Tenacious? Oh yes. Versatile? You betchya. Let’s not forget about our old friends Franklin Morales, Andrew Miller, Felix Doubront, and Matt Albers.

The bullpen will undoubtedly appear much different than it was last year. Bard and Papelbon have had their spots replaced by Melancon and Bailey. However, the construction of a bullpen remains the same. For a general manager, like Ben Cherington, building a bullpen is a lot like playing the lottery. Sure you can pick the numbers you play, but the majority of your success depends on luck. Just as with all major league bullpens, there will be moving parts. What the Sox begin with, will not be what they end with.

In the end, it will be up to the kid from Jersey who grew up rooting for the Phillies to make fans forget about the guy who is now pitching in Philadelphia. It will be up to the guy who was once looked at as the heir apparent to the Rivera Regime in the Bronx to validate the decision that moved Bard to the rotation. It will be up to the rest of the guys to contribute when asked, throw strikes, and record outs.

After all, that is what being in the bullpen is all about.

Jason Varitek Makes the Right Choice

It’s never easy to let go of something or someone that reminds us of ourselves. I don’t care if it is an old practice jersey from your days on the high school basketball team, a toy given as a present when Santa Claus was still real, or a blanket that was used when there was no work, no bills, and no responsibilities.

It is simple to see why cutting ties with Jason Varitek is not easy.

But it should be. In recent years, Varitek has not been good. If you wanted to make the argument that Varitek had a place on the 2012 Boston Red Sox, we would have a serious disagreement.

Varitek will make things official on Thursday at Fenway South. The writing has been on the wall for some time. Kelly Shoppach was inked to a one-year guaranteed contract earlier this winter. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia entrenched as the Opening Day catcher and the powerful bat of Ryan Lavarnway waiting in Pawtucket, Shoppach’s signing, for all intents and purposes, marked the end of the Varitek era in Boston.

Ben Cherington handled both the Varitek and Tim Wakefield situations with the cold, objective decision-making ability that is vital to the success of a quality general manager. And it couldn’t have been easy. Many fans would have loved to see both longtime Red Sox members back for one more season, a season that commemorates the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. For all of the negative commentary that focuses on the Red Sox brass putting public relations first, they made two shrewd baseball decisions. The roster spot that Wakefield would have occupied outweighs the production the Sox would have received. The same holds true for the Captain.

Varitek couldn’t throw out Cecil Fielder attempting to steal third base on a bad jump with a left handed batter at the plate. His bat has evolved into an abject weakness, as it should–he’s 39 years old. Despite the fact that it is easy to provide sound reasoning as to why Varitek is both an offensive and defensive liability, it is clear how someone could argue that he is still valuable to not only the Red Sox, but any major league team.

The three-time All-Star knows how to call a game. He sees things that Saltalamacchia will not pick up on in 2012. He is a seasoned veteran that knows opposing hitters as well as he knows the pitchers he works with. And that’s pretty rare.

Josh Beckett agrees.

“He’d call a pitch and I’d shake and he’d throw the same pitch down. I knew he saw something I didn’t see. Obviously he’s closer to the plate and the batter and everything. I knew then I could have conviction in that, that he saw something that he really wanted to do that with.”

There is no point in denying the truth: Varitek provides the guys who toe the rubber with a peace of mind about the pitch they are about to make more than Saltalamacchia or Shoppach will. And there is something to be said for that. Clay Buchholz may not be afraid to throw his changeup in a hitters’ count because Varitek made that decision for him. Beckett may snap his curve ball downward with more authority because he has a sincere trust when ‘Tek is on the receiving end of the pitch. It’s a fair argument, but it also comes with a counterpoint.

The 2011 Red Sox team was too comfortable. Varitek has served as less of a legitimate contributor and more of a caddy to Beckett in recent years. Varitek isn’t stupid. He knows that he hasn’t been the offensive and defensive stalwart he had been in the past. At the same time, Varitek knows (and it’s true) he could still contribute on the major league level–even as a soon-to-be 40 year old.

That’s what makes it so hard.

On Thursday, Varitek, like Wakefield did a couple of weeks ago, will stand up in front of former teammates, members of the media, and admirers to announce that he will no longer play baseball. It must be tough to make the right choice.

And for fans, it is certainly not easy.

As we discard items from our past, it often hurts. The practice jersey from high school may make its way into the trash. The toy from Christmas past will likely make an appearance in a yard sale one day. But before we let go of the blanket that was with us for so long, when things were just too good, we may tear away a piece, just to save–just in case.

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