BOSTON -- Regardless of how the season ends for the Red Sox, one question has been answered. The catcher is a keeper.
Of the five prospective free agents on the current roster -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Stephen Drew, Joel Hanrahan, Mike Napoli and Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- the catcher has made the most compelling case to return.
Ellsbury might prove too expensive, the Sox have other options besides Drew at short, Hanrahan had Tommy John surgery, Napoli has a hip condition and now plantar fasciitis.
Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, plays a position where the Sox have no obvious replacement ready in the system. Ryan Lavarnway remains a question mark whose value has dropped this season, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart need more time and the pickings are slim in free agency.
But beyond that, at age 28, Saltalamacchia has crossed the threshold of uncertainty to become the catcher the Red Sox hoped they were getting when they acquired him from the Texas Rangers at the 2010 trading deadline in what appeared an inconsequential deal at the time. Saltalamacchia, a No. 1 draft pick 10 years ago (Atlanta) who had been traded once before in a big deal for Mark Teixeira, had fallen out of favor in Texas, afflicted with a case of the yips on his throws and barely getting by in Triple-A.
The Sox gave up little to gain a look, and after an unsteady apprenticeship under Jason Varitek and catching instructor Gary Tuck (during which the Red Sox starting pitching tanked last year), Saltalamacchia has become his own man, one whose confidence in his own abilities is shared by the pitchers who rely on him most.
"You could see it from Day 1 of spring training," said one of those pitchers, left-hander Jon Lester. "There's been a different presence about him."
David Ross was the veteran imported over the winter to shore up Boston's catching, projected to catch at least a third of the time. A concussion that sidelined him for more than two months thwarted that plan. Not only did Saltalamacchia not bend from the added workload, but he has thrived.
Tuesday night was the 29th time in 35 games since the All-Star break that Saltalamacchia has drawn the start, and offensively, he has shredded the reputation gained the last two seasons of faltering badly in the second half (.221 average in 2011 and .200 in 2012, including a .180 September).
He has hits in 11 of his last 12 games (15-for-45, .333) and is batting .271 overall with 11 home runs. His 34 doubles are the most by any American League catcher, and after Bobby Valentine stopped using him against left-handers last season, he has held his own against lefties, posting a .243/.354/.457/.811 line in 70 at-bats.
More importantly, Red Sox starters are coming off a West Coast trip in which they posted a 1.17 ERA over six games, and overall have a 3.82 ERA, second in the league. And that's with Clay Buchholz missing the last 10 weeks.
"I wasn't here last year," said Ross, who pinch hit for Saltalamacchia in Tuesday night's 13-2 win, "but from what I've seen this year, I mean he's one of the top five, 10 catchers in the game as far as I'm concerned. You've got a switch-hitter, you have a guy with power, hits for average. I know his throw-out numbers weren't great, but the combination of what I've seen and the pitchers getting better, he prepares as well as anybody I've been around.
"He does his homework, he puts in his time, he's here early, he goes over scouting reports twice -- once with the relievers, catchers and coaches, then he goes up with the starters. He does all the things you want in a catcher. I couldn't be happier for him. It's been fun to watch. Me being out, him running the ship. He's been a kind of leader on the field and doing what we need to do to win. He's been a big, big reason why this team has had success."
It was necessary, Lester believes, for Saltalamacchia to emerge from Varitek's shadow.
"I just think he feels more comfortable," Lester said. "Any sport you talk about, comfort is a big thing and when he first got over here, he had Jason Varitek staring over his shoulder. That's tough. I don't care who you are, how mentally strong you are, you're always going to be scrutinized. You're always going to be looking in the dugout -- should I have thrown that pitch or what?
"Any time you still have Tek, there is going to be a natural comfort. A lot of guys had thrown a lot of innings, a lot of pitches to him. That's part of being human.
"Obviously, last year was a bit of a struggle for him, as far as kind of figuring out who he was. Is he a starter? Is he a backup, twice a week? I think this year coming in John [Farrell] and the pitching staff and everybody were saying, 'Look, this is who we're going to battle with every day. We're going to give him some time off when he needs some time off, but Rossie is going to back him up, that's the way it is.' I think that eases anyone's mind. It's a big confidence booster for him."
Saltalamacchia said he never viewed Varitek as a burden.
"I never looked at it that way," he said. "I always looked at it as an opportunity to basically steal every bit of information he had. To see how he goes about his day-to-day business, how he prepares. We're different in personalities. He's more serious, he doesn't joke around as much. I like to have fun with these guys, to keep it loose.
"But he had total respect when he walked in the door. That's something he earned."
The knowledge Saltalamacchia gained from Varitek needed a critical catalyst to bear fruit, one that he now has: experience.
"That's kind of what is going on with me now," he said. "I'm getting more experienced with the hitters, the pitching staff. That goes a long way."
Hand-in-hand with that experience has come confidence and trust. Confidence in himself, trust from his pitchers.