The Red Sox have a need for a left-handed complement to Mike Napoli at first base. They also are heading into spring training with three catchers – Jarrod Saltalmacchia, David Ross and Ryan Lavarnway – who are all at points in their career which would suggest they would each be earning spots on the major league roster.
So, where does that leave the starter of a season ago, Saltalmacchia?
He is heading into what would be perceived as the prime of his career at 27-years-old, and will become eligible for free agency following the upcoming season. Saltalamacchia is also fresh off showing the kind of power (25 homers) most teams drool over when trying to lock in backstops.
According to Saltalmacchia, little has changed.
At no point this offseason has he been asked to break out a first baseman’s glove for spring training. “I haven’t had any conversations about first base,” he said by phone from his Florida home.
Catching, he reiterates, is still his thing.
“When I catch, that’s when I play my best,” said Saltalamacchia, who started a career-high 95 games at catcher in ’12.“I’ve learned that about myself. I’m a better player when I catch, and catch on a regular basis. I think that’s something a lot of people learned last year.”
Saltalmacchia did hit all but two of his home runs while catching, finishing with an OPS .143 higher (.755-.612) catching than his 47 plate appearances as a designated hitter. It was DH he spent quite a bit more time at in the final month or so, with Lavarnway getting to 15 September starts at backstop, compared to Saltalmacchia’s 11.
The discussions he has had with Red Sox manager John Farrell over the past few months, in fact, have done nothing to dissuade the switch-hitter from believing Saltalmacchia won’t get further opportunities to prove his theory regarding production in relation to playing time.
“I’ve had a few conversations with Farrell and every conversation is great,” Saltalmacchia said. “He told me, ‘Listen, we signed Ross to complement you. You’re going to get right-handed at-bats.’ Stuff like that. I’ve been happy with it. I’m just looking going into spring training having already gone through the mental grind of the game, so it’s just best to go out there and let your play show for itself. You can’t control what the manager does. We have to go out there, and if the manager says, ‘You’re going to play one day this week and get two at-bats,’ that one day and those two at-bats have to be the best they possibly can be. I just have to be prepared at the max level.”
Although Lavarnway could very well enter the playing time equation, he does still hold an option, allowing the Red Sox the flexibility of returning the righy hitter to the minor leagues to start the season.
The challenge in identifying plate appearances for last season’s starter comes primarily when looking at Ross’ success – and Saltalamacchia’s struggles — against left-handed pitching.
The dynamic may not be all that different than when the right-handed hitting Kelly Shoppach resided on the roster. Although there was some grumbling from Shoppach regarding playing time, the situation seemed to fit Saltalamacchia, who just missed out on making the American League All-Star team after having totaled an .807 with 17 homers in the first half.
But while Saltalamacchia would catch 472 2/3 innings in the season’s first three months, he served as the Sox’ backstop for just 353 2/3 frames in the final three. Despite the role change (which was pushed along by a combination of David Ortiz’ injury and the team’s desire to see more of Lavarnway), Saltlamacchia felt like the ’12 experience was still a big step in the right direction.
“A lot of times I forget where I was at two or three years ago, and a lot of people forget that, as well,” he said. “Just physically and mentally, what your body goes through, nobody understands your body is really, really tired and you have to depend on skill. But I always felt differently with myself where I felt as the year goes on I get better and better and my body gets used to it. Last year splitting time and really DHing in the last couple months of the season, it was tough. I had to learn on the go again.”