Commentary

Breaking down Red Sox catcher options

Updated: November 26, 2010, 10:14 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

One way or another, the Red Sox are preparing for a new era behind the plate.

Victor Martinez is packing for Detroit, and Jason Varitek's return is in question. That leaves Jarrod Saltalamacchia atop the depth chart as the de facto catcher.

Are the Red Sox serious about him as a primary option? Will Saltalamacchia finally reach his potential? Who else will the team bring in?

At this point, there are far more questions than answers.

The Rangers entrusted Saltalamacchia as their Opening Day starter in each of the past two seasons. In both cases, the team had to look outside the organization for the stretch run.

Can the Red Sox afford to put the same faith in him?

As of today, Saltalamacchia's legacy doesn't extend far beyond having the longest last name in MLB history.

Twice anointed Baseball America's top-rated catching prospect in baseball (2006 and 2007), he made his major league debut on his 22nd birthday. The hype seemed vindicated in 2007 after he smacked 11 home runs in 93 games as a rookie.

But since then, Saltalamacchia has battled injuries and inconsistency. It reached a tipping point early in 2010 when he struggled with throws back to the mound. Now 25, the man once the centerpiece of a trade for Mark Teixeira was quietly shipped to Boston in a blink-and-you-missed-it deadline deal.

The Red Sox front office has been outspoken in its praise of Saltalamacchia, expressing some comfort with him as the starting catcher.

Would Boston really go into 2011 relying on a player who has never started more than 83 games behind the plate? What about his .592 career OPS against lefties? He was hitting just .244 in the minors when the Red Sox acquired him.

Boston's optimism could be just a case of posturing. It's considered to be a buyer's market at catcher, although you wouldn't know it based on John Buck's three-year, $18 million contract with the Marlins. In Buster Posey, John Jaso, Josh Thole, Carlos Santana and J.P. Arencibia (among others), an influx of young catchers has saturated the market.

Yet, arguably the top three free-agent catchers -- Martinez, Buck and Ramon Hernandez -- have already signed.

Let's break down who's left in free agency, as well as some potential trade candidates.

Free-Agent Options

Miguel Olivo -- Only four catchers have hit more home runs than Olivo's 81 over the past five seasons. This past season, he threw out 40 percent of would-be base stealers for the Rockies, second only to Yadier Molina. Even though he hit just .193 after the All-Star break, those are the numbers of a catcher who will be looking for a starting gig. That would likely be the case in Boston, although his .821 career OPS against lefties would make for an interesting platoon with Saltalamacchia. From a defensive standpoint, the Red Sox haven't had someone this effective against baserunners since Tony Pena, who nabbed 37.3 percent in 1993.

However, Olivo, 32, lacks any semblance of plate discipline, which makes him a questionable choice in Boston. He swung at 53.7 percent of pitches, the 11th-highest rate among 213 qualifying hitters. Only Mark Reynolds (40.1 percent) had a higher swing-and-miss rate than Olivo (35.9). All told, he has the lowest career on-base percentage of any active player with 2,000 plate appearances. Given his superior defense and close similarity offensively, will Olivo be looking for John Buck money? If so, those negatives might outweigh the positives for Boston.

A.J. Pierzynski -- Since his first full season in 2001, only Jason Kendall has logged more innings behind the plate than Pierzynski. Indeed, durability is the main selling point for the soon-to-be 34-year-old catcher, who has never spent a day on the disabled list. That's an attractive quality for the Red Sox, given Saltalamacchia's brittleness. A season removed from hitting .300, he'd likely want a starting role. However, he is coming off a .688 OPS season, has never had more than 25 walks and isn't known for his arm behind the plate.

Effectively replacing the team captain, his outspoken personality would be a stark contrast to Varitek's lead-by-example approach. The White Sox didn't offer arbitration to Pierzynski, meaning he wouldn't require any compensation, unlike Olivo. Pierzynski could still end up back in Chicago as insurance to Tyler Flowers, who hit just .220 in Charlotte and struggled in brief action as a September call-up.

Yorvit Torrealba -- He was considered a key to the Padres' 90-win season, and the club was 53-36 with him starting behind the plate. Although Torrealba managed an impressive .823 OPS at Petco, he also was part of the team's collapse. He hit just .180 over his final 39 games. Now the club is committing to Nick Hundley behind the plate.

If the Red Sox do elect to give Saltalamacchia the first crack at the full-time job, a player like Torrealba could be an ideal backup. At 32, he has started more than 100 games only once in his career. But he's strong defensively. The young Padres staff had a 3.14 ERA when throwing to Torrealba, and he threw out 25.5 percent of base stealers. Having turned down his portion of a $3.5M mutual option, he's reportedly in search of a multiyear contract. He is a Type B free agent and was offered arbitration by the Padres.

Jason Varitek -- Certainly the sentimental favorite. One has to consider the possibility of a 15th season in Boston for the captain. With seven HRs and a 1.024 OPS over the first two months of the season, Varitek excelled as a backup. However, he missed substantial time to injury and hit just .163 after that strong start. Given Saltalamacchia's injury history, can the Red Sox afford to rely on a 39-year-old backup? All indications were that Varitek would be moving on.

If the front office truly thinks Saltalamacchia can handle the full load, Varitek would be an ideal mentor to the young catcher. The two have a great deal in common. Like Varitek, Saltalamacchia (6-foot-4) is considered large for a catcher. Both are switch-hitters. Varitek once was a highly touted prospect but did not become a starter until age 27. The more likely scenario has the Red Sox focusing on production over leadership behind an unproven starter.

Others notables: Rod Barajas, Gerald Laird, Bengie Molina, Gregg Zaun

Potential Trade Targets

Ryan Doumit -- Could Doumit be made available? In Chris Snyder ($5.75 million) and Doumit ($5.1 million), the Pirates are committing a large portion of their payroll to seemingly redundant players. For a team that had an Opening Day payroll of just $34.9 million, it seems illogical. Sure, the Diamondbacks sent more than $3 million to help cover Snyder's contract, and Doumit can play multiple positions. The Pirates could move forward with both players. However, for a pitching-starved organization, a deal might be the more attractive option.

Offensively, Doumit is certainly an attractive option, as his .770 career OPS attests. But, in many ways, Doumit and Saltalamacchia have overlapping profiles. Both are switch-hitters who struggle against lefties (Doumit: .186 BA in 2010). Both are considered injury prone (Doumit has yet to avoid the DL in a season). Both have major defensive questions to answer (Doumit threw out just six of 85 base stealers). Ultimately, if the Red Sox are looking for a complement to what they already have, he might not be the answer.

Chris Iannetta -- Despite 34 home runs and an .853 OPS in the previous two seasons combined, Iannetta found himself relegated to backup duties in 2010. After hitting just .197 in that role, his value has never been lower. But with Olivo a free agent, the 27-year-old Providence native once again sits atop the Rockies' depth chart. His availability is uncertain, but their refusal to commit to him in 2010 creates doubt about his future in Denver.

Unlike other catching options out there, Iannetta has strong plate discipline. Despite a .234 career batting average, he has a .353 on-base percentage. Over the past three years, he's walked once per 7.6 plate appearances. Among catchers, only Chris Snyder walks more frequently. A strong pull hitter, the righty could thrive in Fenway. Of his 49 career home runs, 31 were pulled and 16 hit to center, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Russell Martin -- Coming off a hip fracture with a salary expected to be north of $5 million, Martin is a candidate to be non-tendered before the Dec. 2 deadline. The Red Sox could conceivably deal for him beforehand or take a wait-and-see approach. It's an amazing fall from grace for the two-time All-Star and former Gold Glover. Don't forget, he's still just 27 years old, the same age as Rays rookie John Jaso.

In particular, Martin's power numbers have plummeted over the past two seasons. From 2006 to 2008, only three catchers had more extra-base hits than Martin: Brian McCann, Victor Martinez and Joe Mauer. But, over the past two seasons, there are 23 catchers with more. Martin's 44 XBHs since 2009 are fewer than he had in 2007 alone. His decline has been steep, and that was before a serious injury knocked him out for the season. However, Martin does expect to ready for spring training. He's still young and with a discerning eye and a strong arm. But for these same reasons, Martin could stay with the Dodgers, who don't have better internal options.

Mike Napoli -- The Red Sox failed to negotiate a deal with the Angels after claiming Napoli off waivers in August. Could talks resume this offseason? Mike Scioscia is known to value defensive catchers, something no one has accused Napoli of being. Meanwhile, top prospect Hank Conger put up a .847 OPS in Triple-A Salt Lake at the age of 22.

Common sense says the Red Sox will not be able to replace V-Mart's offense at catcher. However, Napoli could help ease the loss. Martinez hit .400 with a 1.173 OPS against lefties last season. For his part, Napoli hit .305 with a .966 OPS against southpaws. Meanwhile, Saltalamacchia's lifetime .765 OPS against righties is higher than Martinez' .694 OPS versus right-handed pitchers in 2010. Throw in Napoli's .909 career OPS at Fenway, and perhaps the Red Sox would be willing to overlook the defensive questions. Consider this: Since 2008, Napoli has hit a home run every 16.1 at-bats. That's just off Alex Rodriguez's pace (1 per 16.1 AB) and ahead of Miguel Cabrera (1 per 16.3).

Other possibilities: Ronny Paulino, Kelly Shoppach, Dioner Navarro, John Baker

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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