On each weekday until baseball’s GM meetings Nov. 7, we will spotlight one key decision the Red Sox need to make this offseason that will help determine the success or failure of the 2013 team.
Today’s topic: Who will be the Red Sox catchers in 2013?
The Red Sox gave their first extended look last season to Jarrod Saltalamacchia as heir apparent to Jason Varitek, who retired last spring after shepherding Sox pitching staffs for the better part of 15 seasons as the team’s catcher. They also gave rookie Ryan Lavarnway his first big-league audition behind the plate.
Defining the decision: Is Salty/Lavarnway combo a long-term solution?
Saltalamacchia hit 25 home runs, one short of the team record for home runs by a catcher, but his on-base percentage of .288 ranked 11th among catchers with 300 or more plate appearances, as did his WAR (wins above replacement) of 1.2. Except for home runs, his offensive numbers were almost identical from the previous season. Lavarnway only had 153 at-bats, but struggled mightily (.157 batting average, 2 homers) after slugging his way through the minors.
Saltalamacchia will be eligible for free agency after next season, so if the Red Sox do not believe he is the long-term answer at catcher, now might be the time to start thinking about an upgrade.
But a catcher’s value to a ballclub is measured by more than just his offense, and while scouts have offered mixed reviews of the catchers’ defensive ability, Gary Tuck, the team’s bullpen coach and highly respected catching instructor, was effusive in his praise of the team’s tandem.
“(Saltalamacchia) can catch the ball and block the ball as good as anybody in the game,’’ Tuck said at the end of the season. “He made strides in calling a game this year, and if we ever give him the chance, he’ll throw guys out.
“Blocking the plate, we introduced a couple new things, but he’s as good an athlete as you can have back there. He made a lot of strides. I’m very proud of him.’’
Saltalamacchia blocked 339 pitches in 852 innings, which compares favorably to Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, who was named the 2012 Fielding Bible’s best defensive catcher last season (329 blocked pitches in 1,188 innings).
Saltalamacchia threw out just 18.4 percent of the runners who attempted to steal on him last season, a significant drop from the 31 percent caught-stealing rate he had in 2011, which in part reflects the team’s preference to emphasize getting the batter out (no slide step, for example) than throwing the runner out. Tuck noted how new White Sox manager Robin Ventura emphasized shutting down the running game, resulting in a significant spike in runners thrown out by catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who is not regarded as a strong thrower.
Lavarnway had an even worse time of it throwing out runners (3 of 31, 9.7 percent), although arm strength does not appear an issue. Better technique, and more help from the pitchers, should improve those numbers.
“Do I want our guys to be throwing guys out? Are you kidding me?’’ Tuck said. “We’ve got to do a better job.’’
But Tuck also spoke of Lavarnway having great potential. “He’s a different player than a year ago,’’ he said. “He made great strides. An absolute leader. He calls a good game. He made physical strides.
“He has a feel for not even taking a plan but giving a plan and adapting a plan to hitters. He has a real feel for the game. That’s a special gift. (Joe) Girardi had it. Jason (Varitek).’’
He also noted that between his time in Pawtucket and his stint with the Red Sox, Lavarnway caught more games than he’d ever had and finished the season tired. He’ll have a greater awareness of the physical demands going into next season.
Option A: Stay with the current tandem
This appears to be the most likely course. Only one catcher, Pierzynski, hit more home runs than Saltalamacchia last season, so there is value in having a catcher with power, even if it means living with the strikeouts (139 in 2012).
Lavarnway, even in his short time in the big leagues, appeared to gain the trust of Sox pitchers, most notably Jon Lester. The familiarity of both catchers with the staff can’t be discounted and should prove beneficial to new manager John Farrell, whose own knowledge of Sox pitchers should favor improvement.
If Lavarnway hits, he could ultimately be Saltalamacchia’s biggest challenger for the No. 1 job.
Option B: Trade Saltalamacchia, consider other options
Saltalamacchia, who is eligible for his second year of arbitration, remains one of the more affordable players in the Sox lineup, though his salary will take a significant jump from its current $2.5 million. Both Pierzynski and Mike Napoli, who are regarded more for their offense, are free agents, but Pierzynski is 36 and Napoli might make more sense for the Sox as a first baseman.
Long shot: Paging Joe Mauer
When Joe Mauer reportedly was placed on waivers by the Minnesota Twins during the August waiver period, there were rumors that the Red Sox might place a claim. But for physical reasons, Mauer’s days of catching every day appear to be over (only 74 games behind the plate last season), and he still has 6 years and $138 million remaining on his contract.
Your turn: What's the best option for the Red Sox?
We’ve outlined the possibilities, now tell us what you would do if you were in Ben’s shoes. Vote in the poll above and leave your more detailed thoughts in the comments section.