If nothing else, Jarrod Saltalamacchia will always be remembered for one thing: he has the longest last name in the history of Major League Baseball. Even if he never hits another home run, his name will go down in the history books.
But he will hit another home run. At the pace he’s going, he’s going to hit many more home runs. As the 2012 season reaches its mid-point, there is no doubt that Saltalamacchia is having the best season of his six-year major league career. He needs only one more home run to match his career high in a season, and is consistently batting cleanup for one of the best offenses in baseball. Once a top prospect in both the Brave’s and Ranger’s farm systems, Saltalamacchia is finally starting to display the talent and hitting ability that he was so vaunted for when he was drafted in the first round of the 2003 amateur draft.
In the next few months, the Red Sox front office will have some decisions to make regarding the catcher position. Even with Saltalamacchia’s impressive numbers this season, one has to ask: can he be the Red Sox’ catcher for years to come?
Let’s start with this year. Obviously, it’s been impressive. Fifteen home runs in only 62 games is an excellent pace for him. Scouts always projected him as a power hitter, but to this point he’s never launched more than sixteen. So, yes, the power is finally there. But besides from that, Saltalamacchia has not been quite as impressive as we’ve been led to believe. He’s only hitting for a .254 average. Maybe he’s getting a little unlucky with a .278 BABIP, but only marginally at most. On top of that, his eye at the plate has still been poor. He’s striking out at a 26.6% clip, and walking only 6.3% of the time. The .537 SLG is impressive, but the .305 OBP leaves a lot to be desired for.
His offense aside, his defense has been rather atrocious. He has a -3.0 FLD, which means he has already cost Boston three runs this season because of his poor defensive play. Only two catchers in all the majors have a worse mark than that. This past weekend alone, he may have cost the Sox not one, but two games, with his play at the end of the game.
All this being said, he has a 1.4 WAR, which is tenth best among catchers in the majors. I’d say you can’t complain about that, but I just spent two hundred words doing just that. Listen, I’m not suggesting that the Red Sox should be unhappy with the production they have gotten out of Saltalamacchia, because they certainly should be. What I am suggesting is that by no means has he played at a level where Boston should stop considering the future of the position.
This seems especially relevant now because Ryan Lavarnway has been on a tear down at Pawtucket over the last month. The twenty-four has raised his batting average to .316, and he has seven homers and eighteen doubles to go along with it. His .403 OBP certainly catches the eye, and while he does have forty-three strikeouts in 237 at bats, he walks enough that it’s not a glaring issue. At this point in his career, it seems fairly evident that Lavarnway is ready for his chance in the majors.
Barring injury though, that chance will not come during the 2012 season in Boston. Salty isn’t going anywhere, and the man backing up, Kelly Shoppach, has been almost as good (seriously, his 1.3 WAR is only .1 less than Salty’s). Besides, it would be more beneficial for Lavarnway to play everyday at Pawtucket, than come to the Majors only to serve as a backup.
Either way, the question becomes this: will Lavarnway’s stock ever be higher? If the answer is no, then it has to be at least close to as high as it can be. This is a catcher hitting close to .300 consistently, who has shown plus power for the past two seasons. Besides from the questions about his defensive ability (many see him as a DH instead of a catcher), this is about as good as it gets.
So the dilemma is this: Does it make more sense to trade Lavarnway now, when his value is seemingly as high as it can be, and try to net the highest return possible? The risk here is of course that Saltalamacchia regresses back to the player he was for the first five years of his career, that he doesn’t keep the pace he’s at now. Then you find yourself in a position where you have traded away a plus offensive catching prospect, certainly a rare thing in any farm system, and are stuck with Salty. On the other side of things, what if you just hang on to them both? Give Lavarnway another year in the minors, and if Salty struggles then you promote him. The risk there is of course that Lavarnway regresses. That he ends up not being able to catch and instead has to DH. Then you’ve lost the opportunity to trade him as part of a package for a real elite player. A dilemma indeed.
Saltalamacchia still has a few years left of arbitration eligibility, so there’s no impending free agency to force the issue, but if Lavarnway continues to hit like he has been all year at Pawtucket, then it’s going to become harder and harder to ignore him.
Either way, it appears as if the catcher for the foreseeable future is already in the system. Whether that’s Saltalamacchia or Lavarnway will be decided in time. Both will be remembered for something. For Saltalamacchia, he’s hoping that it’s for more than the name.