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.