The Red Sox have a big problem on their hands — maybe.

While the Yankees are staring down the possibility of starting Sergio Mitre as their #5 rotation-mate, the Sox are staring down the barrel of a different gun — that of Jarrod Saltalamacchia beginning the season as the club’s #1 catcher.

No one’s excited about it.

And, this late in the off-season, with so little action coming out of the Boston front office, it seems a near certainty that Salty will assume that role in 2011.

So, now that we’ve gotten the self-loathing and denial out of the way, on to the more important topic of what Salty can do in 2011.

For a few months now, the Sox have been talking the talk, that they are “fully confident” that Salty can hold down a starting gig. While that may seem like a pipe dream, it may not be all that farfetched an idea.
It all comes down to your expectations.

For instance, if you think that a championship team must be composed of 9 elite position players, 5 aces, and a bullpen full of closers, you’d be sorely disappointed in Saltalamacchia. In fact, if you’ve listened to most of the major talk radio stations the past few years, you may have been lead to think that way.

If you’re a little more realistic, and understand that every team has some sort of flaw, you might find yourself a bit more open minded about Salty’s spot in the lineup.

Last season, a league-average MLB catcher posted a .249/.319/.381 line — good for a .699 OPS. An ugly line, for sure, it shows just how poor the catcher position tends to be in the Major Leagues.

I’ve always come from the camp that considers league average to be the baseline for a pretty useful player. And, if your worst player is league average, you’re in very good shape.

Getting back to Salty, the catcher has achieved a .248/.315/.386 line over the course of his career, which is just about average with the stick.

However, Salty’s career has had two distinct acts. The first came pre-2008, when he was a primo prospect and the toast of Atlanta and Texas. In more recent times, particularly 2009 and 2010, he has seen his star fade into oblivion. Posting just a .661 OPS in 2009, he spent all of 2010 in the minors save for 30 short plate appearances.

But that doesn’t mean that Saltalamacchia is unfit to play in the Majors.

Standardizing his ugly 2009 campaign (his most recent season with 300+ plate appearances) for his plate discipline indicators, Saltalamacchia would be expected to have delivered a serviceable .249/.306/.387 line and a .693 OPS — just about league average.

2010 had its bright spots, notably a .244/.326/.445/.771 line with AAA Oklahoma City before being dealt to Pawtucket, where he went .278/.350/.850. With 12 home runs in 310 total plate appearances, it appeared as though Saltalamacchia was back on the right track.

Unfortunately, he bombed in his 12 total games in the bigs, batting .167/.333/.292/.625.

Fortunately, however, Salty showed a much more discerning eye at the plate in those 30 plate appearances, improving his O-Swing and Z-Swing percentages to their pre-2009 levels.

While small sample sizes put a damper on the good feelings, it’s an encouraging sign that the backstop held his plate approach together after having fallen apart to a large degree in 2009. Being able to find approach at the plate is always the first step toward success and Salty was able to do that, so there is reason to be excited about his prospects for improvement.

If he is able to hold some of those gains, and put together an approach with elements of his 2008 and 2009 seasons, he could be a huge surprise for 2011, with a .255/.321/.393/.714 season in his sights.

With these numbers as a guide, it becomes clear why the Sox envision Saltalamacchia as a stopgap option for 2011. Though he would be a #2 option in an ideal world, it’s hard to be disappointed with a $750,000 option who has room to improve.

With low expectations already in his corner, it will be hard for Salty to disappoint the Boston faithful this season. Expect him to be one of the unsung heroes of the 2011 Boston Red Sox.