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Wednesday, January 26, 2011
10 Questions -- No. 3: Is Salty ready?

By Gordon Edes

Part 3 of a 10-day series on Red Sox questions that will be answered during spring training.

BOSTON -- In 110 seasons of playing baseball in Boston, do you know how many 39-year-olds have served as Red Sox catcher, for even a single game?

Try one: Elston Howard, the former Yankee star who came to the Sox during the Impossible Dream season of 1967 (after breaking up Billy Rohr’s no-hitter while still with the Yanks) and a year later was 39 when he split time at catcher with Russ Gibson.

Jason Varitek turns 39 on April 11. He will make two.

How much will Varitek catch?

a) A lot more than it appeared on the final day of the 2010 season, when the Sox pulled him off the field to give fans a chance to bid what looked like a final goodbye.

b) That depends in good part on Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is beginning his first full season with the Red Sox at the same age (26 on May 2) that another switch-hitting catcher did 13 years ago: Jason Varitek. And that worked out OK.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Jarrod Saltalamacchia started just five games for the Red Sox last season before needing surgery on his thumb.
The Sox, after making a measured attempt to keep Victor Martinez, who signed with Detroit, ended up re-signing Varitek for a bargain-basement $2 million after finding the other free-agent options at catcher wanting. They had interest in John Buck, but not for the three-year, $18 million deal that he received from the Marlins. They passed on the rest of the field -- which included, among others, Rod Barajas, Ramon Hernandez, Gerald Laird, Yorvit Torrealba, Dioner Navarro, A.J. Pierzynski, Miguel Olivo and Gregg Zaun -- to bring back their longtime captain.

They were committed, it was clear, to grooming Saltalamacchia as Varitek’s successor, and were keeping the veteran around as mentor and backup. Then it wasn’t quite so clear, as the Sox took a run at catcher Russell Martin after he was nontendered by the Dodgers. Martin’s agent termed the Sox interest as “serious,” but Martin wound up signing a one-year, $4 million deal with the Yankees while the Sox reportedly offered no more than a minor-league contract.

Still, the flirtation with Martin raised some questions about how much confidence the Sox have in Saltalamacchia, who started just five games at catcher for Boston before requiring surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Like Varitek at a similar stage in his career, Saltalamacchia is seen as something of an underachiever, for different reasons. Varitek was a former No. 1 draft pick whose career got sidetracked at the start when he elected to sit out a year rather than sign with the Minnesota Twins, the team that originally drafted him, then waited almost another full year before finally signing with the Seattle Mariners. Saltalamacchia is another first-round pick, in 2003 by the Braves, who was viewed as the biggest prize in the package of prospects Texas received from Atlanta in the 2007 trade for Mark Teixeira.

But it didn’t work out that way, even though Saltalamacchia immediately was inserted in the Rangers’ starting lineup after the trade and was the team’s Opening Day catcher in each of the last two seasons. While two other ex-Brave minor leaguers, shortstop Elvis Andrus and closer Neftali Feliz, played huge roles in the Rangers’ road to an American League pennant in 2010, Saltalamacchia was gone by the time the champagne was spilled.

As eager as the Rangers were to install him as their No. 1 catcher, he unexpectedly struggled at bat and behind the plate, and had injury issues, a bad back knocking him out after the 2010 opener. That would be the only game he would catch for the Rangers last season, as he went to the minor leagues and suddenly developed a problem throwing the ball accurately back to the mound.

By the time the Red Sox traded three lower-level minor leaguers for him last July, the throwing issue had been resolved but Saltalamacchia no longer figured in the Rangers’ plans, Texas signing veteran Bengie Molina in the interim.

Saltalamacchia's resume to date raises questions for a team that appears to have assembled all the other necessary components to compete for the World Series this fall. The Sox maintain they are confident Saltalamacchia is up to the challenge, and dispatched bullpen coach Gary Tuck to Florida to work with him in the offseason.

Still, it remains to be seen how Saltalamacchia responds to the pressure and if he's truly ready to inherit the everyday job. That’s where Varitek comes in. He appeared in just 39 games last season, his fewest since becoming a Sox regular, and made just 27 starts before his season was cut short by a fractured right foot.

There may be an unintended consequence of his light workload: Varitek told an associate recently that he feels better than he has in the last five years, not surprising when you consider his body didn’t absorb the usual beating last season.

Varitek’s bat has noticeably slowed -- he struck out roughly once every three at-bats last season (35 in 112). But before he was hurt, he actually put up some good offensive numbers -- .263/.324/.547/.871 -- and did particularly well at home (.283/.323/.567/.890) as opposed to the road (.173/.259/.365/.624). And after opponents stole an American League-high 108 bases when he caught in 2009 (only 16 caught stealing, a 13 percent success rate), Varitek threw out 9 of 43 base-runners last season, a 21 percent success rate.

At the end of the season, Varitek said he felt like he was moving as well as he had in the previous few seasons, and reiterated his desire to play into his 40s. So, while the Red Sox come into camp hoping that Saltalamacchia stakes out the everyday job, don’t be surprised if the workload is shared, especially at the beginning of the season (Varitek hit all seven of his home runs last year in the first two months). That would give Saltalamacchia more time to learn the pitching staff, and take some of the pressure off.

So what do you think, how much would you like to see Saltalamacchia behind the plate and how many games would you like to see Varitek play in? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this blog entry.

Coming Thursday: Who are the contenders to comprise the Red Sox bench?