I’ve never really been a big supporter of Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

I thought he was a worthwhile gamble to acquire from the Rangers for next to nothing, and I liked the idea of grooming him behind Jason Varitek. I was patient through the yips and then through the long, tailing throws to right-center field. I was patient through the consistent chasing of breaking pitches in the dirt. I accepted Salty for what he was – a league average catcher – and didn’t expect him to be any more.

Crouching Salty, Hidden Keeper. Photo by Kelly O'Connor, sittingstill.net.

Crouching Salty, Hidden Keeper. Photo by Kelly O’Connor, sittingstill.net.

And in many ways, that’s what Salty is. He produced 1.5 WAR in 2011 and 1.9 WAR in 2012. WAR is a less useful stat for catchers than it is for other position players since catcher defense is so damn hard to quantify statistically, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. Salty possesses plus raw power and is a 20-homer threat (he hit 25 in 2012), but he strikes out in nearly a third of his at-bats. He’s better defensively than he used to be, but he’s still not very good behind the plate. His strengths and weaknesses are pretty clearly defined, but this year he’s taken a step forward thanks in part to an
increased willingness to take a walk and in part by an unsustainable .371 BABIP.

Yet despite the mixed review I just gave Saltalamacchia, the Red Sox would be wise to keep him. Because sometimes, you don’t realize what you have before you’re in danger of losing it.

Catchers are to baseball what quarterbacks are to football in that there are never enough good ones for every team to have a viable starter. For every Joe Mauer, Buster Posey or Yadier Molina, there are teams forced to start Jeff Mathis, Jose Molina and Humberto Quintero.

Salty sits pretty firmly in the midst of those two groups of names, but that’s not such a bad thing. His 2.6 WAR this season actually puts him 9th among catchers with at least 250 PA, and a few of the names above him are bonafide studs.

Thanks to the presence of Brian McCann, Salty will not be the most sought-after catcher on the free agent market this offseason, but he might be the second-best option. There will likely be meaningfully competition for his services, as by my count the Rays, Yankees, Braves, Marlins, Phillies, White Sox, Rangers and Cubs will all enter 2014 with questions behind the plate.

Losing Salty and not replacing him with another player isn’t really a viable option for the
Red Sox. David Ross is an excellent backup, but he can’t be relied upon to start every day and will be 37 when next season begins. Ryan Lavarnway has disappointed in MLB action this season, and isn’t a good enough defender to start for a contender. Christian Vazquez is a sneakily good prospect who I think is the Sox’ backup of the future, but he’s
not ready and shouldn’t start. And Blake Swihart is at least another season-and-a-half
away form contributing, and could be further away given the typical developmental timeline for catchers.

So for the lulz, let’s break down the options on the market if Salty does take his services elsewhere.

John Buck: Buck has always skirted the line between “bad starting catcher” and “good backup catcher,” and that’s true again in 2013. He’s actually having the second-best season of his career and yet will probably fall short of 2 WAR. As mentioned above, WAR isn’t the end-all be-all for catchers, but it’s a decent measurement nonetheless.

Buck provides pop, adequate defense and the ability to console injured superstars, but that’s it. He’s getting on base at a .290 clip this season. Buck would represent a significant downgrade from Salty.

Brian McCann: The crown jewel of the catcher free agent class, McCann has long been one of the game’s best backstops. After missing time early in the season McCann’s picked up right where he left off over the past half-decade, hitting .271/.344/.495 and accounting for 2.8 WAR in just 340 PA. McCann doesn’t turn 30 until next season and he’s generally considered a good, if not great, defender.

There’s no question that McCann is better than Salty: the question is whether he’ll be worth the massive contract someone’s going to give him. I love McCann – and especially love the idea of keeping him away from the Yankees – but the odds of, say, signing him and resigning Jacoby Ellsbury are slim.

Dioner Navarro: Navarro has come out of nowhere this year to put up a surprising .298/.366/.503 line in 73 games for the Cubs. Already at 1.3 WAR, this is the second-best season of Navarro’s career, and really only the third time he’s been of substantial worth. It seems like Navarro’s been in the league forever but he’s still just 29.

If his newfound willingness to take a walk is a permanent adjustment, he may be worth rostering for years to come. That being said, this is the same Navarro who was worth a collective -1.0 WAR from 2009-2012. He’ll come cheaply, but the risk that his 2013 campaign is a fluke is substantial.

A.J. Pierzynski: One of the game’s most notable villains, Pierzynski is having yet another quietly productive season in Texas, combining an above average bat for a catcher with below average defense. The 36-year-old is hitting .283/.309/.452 in 424 PA, although he’s taking his aversion to walks to a whole new level with a BB% of just 2.4%.

Pierzynski isn’t an elite option but he’s a fairly safe bet to be productive and he’s durable, having played in at least 128 games every season since 2001. If the Sox decide to go cheap behind the plate and try to bridge the gap to Swihart for a year or two, this is a viable, if unsavory, option.

Carlos Ruiz: After a career year in 2012 the man they call “Chooch” missed the first 25 games of the season serving a suspension for amphetamine use, then spent some time on the DL with a hamstring injury as well. As such he’s played in just 74 games this year, but he’s been largely productive when on the field.

His MVP-caliber 2012 season is likely a mirage, but the .279/.333/.389 line he’s putting up this year seems reasonable and is very solid for a catcher. The Phillies seem intent on competing next year even though a rebuild is more prudent, so I’d expect them to make a heavy push for his services. Still, he represents a more attractive option than Buck or Pierzynski and likely won’t make a team break the bank as will McCann.

If you’re looking for more options … this is really it, at least via free agent pool. You could take a gamble on Geovany Soto, Yorvit Torrealba or Kurt Suzuki (if his option is declined), but only the latter is even a remotely attractive option. Other than that, it’s guys like Chris Snyder, Kelly Shoppach, Miguel Olivo and the immortal Quintero. No thank you.

In terms of trade options, the pickings would appear to be slim on that front as well. The Padres could be willing to part with Nick Hundley if they trust Yasmani Grandal, and the Reds could deal Ryan Hanigan if they want to move forward with Devin Mesoraco. If the A’s keep Suzuki, they’ll have a surplus with John Jaso and Derek Norris as well. That’s about it.

Suddenly, Saltalamacchia isn’t looking so bad.

There are a few intangible motives for keeping Salty in town as well. He’s built up familiarity with the pitching staff, which is hard to quantify but which we can probably all agree does account for something. He’s improved defensively over the past few seasons, which doesn’t rule out subtle future improvement. He seems to be well respected and well liked by his teammates, and incase you haven’t heard chemistry matters to the Boston Red Sox now.

But the most compelling reason to keep Salty is simply because there aren’t many better alternatives on the market. Unless they want to give four or five years at $15 million per year to McCann, the Red Sox are probably best off retaining Salty on a two- or (more likely) three-year deal and allowing him to serve as the bridge to the Swihart era.

We’re still going to get frustrated when anyone with Grade 55 speed steals 14 bases off of Salty per game, and we’re still going to shake our heads when he swings at curveballs that bounce four feet in front of the plate. But as flawed as Salty is, there are few viable alternatives with the promise of being any better.