Exploring Boston's options at catcher
McCann is tempting, but incumbent Saltalamacchia makes most sense for Red Sox
In the latter stages of the 2010 season and through 2011, a common sight around the Red Sox was Jason Varitek engaged in instructive discussion with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the old vet showing the ropes to the new import.
Three years later, after that import put forth an offensive campaign nearly on par with some of Varitek's prime seasons and helped lead a starting pitching staff that reduced its overall ERA by 1.35 while standing as one of the leaders of a worst-to-first rebirth, Saltalamacchia could be on his way out.
The 28-year-old was the only one of four Red Sox regulars who were free agents not to be extended a qualifying offer (one-year, $14.1 million). General manager Ben Cherington plainly said that he makes offers to players only if they want that player around, even though some of the strategy is tied to draft picks.
Does that mean that they do not want Saltalamacchia? It's enough to make him wonder.
Saltalamacchia told WEEI.com on Monday that he was still waiting for the Sox to approach him about a deal to return, but the sides reportedly have touched base since then.
"[Other teams] called the day the World Series ended. It's really flattering, and it makes me realize other teams do appreciate what I've done," he said. "Now on the other side, it would feel good if the Red Sox ... we really haven't had any conversation with them. It would be nice to have them call and appreciate that as well and show their appreciation by saying, 'This is what we're willing to do. We're willing to go to this, that and the other thing.'"
Here is the "this, that and the other thing" as it relates to Saltalamacchia. Or put another way, here are the options available to Boston at the catcher position:
1. Sign a free agent. Although the new organizational philosophy has been to shy away from the big-name, big-money moves, free agent Brian McCann might prove to be tempting. McCann is a seven-time All-Star who has hit at least 20 home runs in six straight seasons. However, the Atlanta Braves extended him a qualifying offer, meaning the Sox would forfeit their top draft choice if they signed him.
Also, the soon-to-be 30-year-old has started an average of only 108 games behind the plate over the past three years due to bumps and bruises and has had two straight seasons with an OPS below the .804 mark that Saltalamacchia produced in 2013.
McCann has been projected to get as much as five years at around $15 million a year, or maybe more. It's hard to see the Red Sox stomaching such a sum for a player who seems headed toward a part-time DH role in a few years.
2. Work it out with Salty. In his discussion with WEEI.com, Saltalamacchia mentioned multiple times that the Red Sox might contact him in time and that he might be premature in questioning the delay. Cherington said Monday at Fenway Park that he has had discussions with all of his free agents, but perhaps any discourse with Saltalamacchia was limited in nature.
The organization has already decided that $14.1 million is too hefty a price tag for Saltalamacchia, who made $4.5 million this season. If it has any reason to believe that 2013 was a sign of things to come, would three years at a lesser rate, such as $10 or $11 million, make sense to both sides? Saltalamacchia would certainly get an offer in that ballpark (three years, $30 million) elsewhere.
Saltalamacchia has expressed his love of Boston, and from the moment Varitek put his arm around the former first-round pick, he has been a solid fit in the clubhouse. The fact that Saltalamacchia had some rocky moments behind the plate in the World Series before being benched for Games 4, 5 and 6 may mean something but in the grand scheme of things will probably not be a deciding factor.
It has been a slow process for Saltalamacchia to get from that first-round selection by the Braves over 10 years ago to a status as one of the top free agents at his position. Keeping him around for a few more years might show that his slow climb is not yet done and perhaps there is plenty more left in the tank. Consider that McCann is just a tad bit older but has started 1,004 major league games at catcher, compared to just 484 for Saltalamacchia. While the former could enter the "nothing more than a designated hitter" phase soon, the latter might have three or four solid seasons behind the plate before a downturn.
3. Stick with David Ross and others. When the Sox let Victor Martinez walk after 2010, the reaction among fans was largely negative. Most felt as if pairing an aging Varitek with an unproven Saltalamacchia was a recipe for disaster. However, Varitek and Saltalamacchia led a catching group that ranked third in the majors in home runs and second in RBIs, although it did grade less-than-average defensively, a product of the age of both players.
Ross will be 37 on Opening Day. Ryan Lavarnway, whose projection as a can't-miss bat has cooled, is 26. The disparity is similar to the Varitek-Saltalamacchia pairing. This one would be much less heralded but could be enough to get the job done on the cheap (costing less than $4 million together), and there are promising prospects that could use another year to advance.
For their part, the Red Sox still view Ross, who missed a chunk of time due to multiple concussions, as someone who can take on almost half the workload.
"I think going back to this time last year, or when we signed David, it was the thought that he was a 60-70 games caught player," manager John Farrell said Monday. "That's not to put a ceiling on him either. But I think we're probably comfortable in that it's a tandem position. I think that's the way we view the catching position here for a number of years, and David from a physical standpoint would clearly be able to handle his side of the tandem."
With someone as valuable to the formula in 2013 as Ross, it meant handing $14.1 million for the other half of a tandem did not make sense. However, given the slow but steady progression of Saltalamacchia, his fit in the clubhouse and the small, but present, warning signs with more expensive choices, it would make sense to at least try to negotiate a long-term deal.
For Saltalamacchia, it's up to the Red Sox to begin that process.
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