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A surplus of catching for the Red Sox

11/11/2012

Catching jobs are open all over the place, so much so that it feels like one giant game of musical chairs. The New York Yankees need a catcher, so do the Texas Rangers, and the Tampa Bay Rays are always looking.

Boston's signing of David Ross theoretically creates a surplus of catching for the Red Sox, and theoretically, general manager Ben Cherington could weigh offers for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is climbing the salary arbitration scale.

But a lot of what Boston does with its catching depends on what the Red Sox are saying in their internal evaluations of Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway, and whether they really see either as a frontline catcher in 2014 and 2015.

Saltalamacchia is 27 years old and is coming off a season in which he posted a .288 on-base percentage -- precisely matching his OBP from 2011; in 2012, he hit 25 homers among 41 extra-base hits. Working with a pitching staff that has been notoriously poor at holding runners, he allowed 80 stolen bases in 98 attempts. As Saltalamacchia climbs the salary arbitration scale, he is due for significant raises in the next two seasons, over the $2.5 million he made last year.

Ross, who turns 36 next spring, hasn't been a frontline catcher in five years, never playing in more than 62 games since 2007; he served as a right-handed complement to Brian McCann in Atlanta.

And while the 25-year-old Lavarnway has intriguing power -- he hit 32 homers in the minors in 2011 -- some rival evaluators have some serious questions about whether he can be a catcher in the major leagues, just as some have never viewed Jesus Montero as someone who could play the position. "I've never seen a catcher with actions that slow," said one evaluator of Lavarnway. "Ever."

Said another: "He is a very slow-moving guy. He throws OK, but everything has to be perfect for him to throw runners out. He's a good backup, because of his bat."

From a longtime evaluator:

"The Red Sox don't think they have the right everyday guy on their roster. Salty is too inconsistent behind the plate and struggles hitting left-handed pitching. Lavarnway has to hit a lot to be the everyday guy to make up for his below-average defense, which is a big question because of how his offensive season went in 2012. [David] Ross is a good sign for them, but he is a guy you can't overexpose.

"Lavarnway is limited behind the plate due to athleticism, but is a very hard worker and has improved. But [for him to be your] everyday catcher, he is going to have to hit a ton. Part of his offensive downturn this year might have happened because he caught more than ever and got tired as the season went on. He swung the bat well the first half of the Triple-A season and then it was starting to head south before he was called up to the major leagues.

"Defensively he is a little slow-moving and struggles with better stuff. His arm at times can be average, but his throws have some tail to them and the footwork to the release is slow.

"Realistically I see Lavarnway as a part-time player who can catch some, maybe DH some against left-handed pitching, and with some work, maybe play some first base -- but that won't be pretty. His bat will dictate his career; he is a better hitter than seen in 2012."

The Red Sox believe Lavarnway can be an everyday catcher -- for what it's worth, he was picked as the best defensive catcher in the International League -- and one official noted that Lavarnway has willed himself to get better and has improved consistently. Late development is not unusual for catchers.

The respected A.J. Ellis of the Los Angeles Dodgers didn't play in his first game in the big leagues until he was 27, and wasn't a regular until he was 29. Mike Redmond, recently hired as manager of the Marlins, didn't reach the big leagues until he was 27, and he was asked about being a coach; Redmond decided to keep playing, and wound up playing 13 seasons in the big leagues.

Ross hits well against lefties, but he is respected for his attention to detail as a catcher, and fits the classic profile of a No. 2 catcher, with defense as the priority. The guess here is that Boston will go with Saltalamacchia and Ross, while continuing Lavarnway's development in the minors. "We'll see what the offseason brings," said one evaluator.

Other thoughts

• The Atlanta Braves will now go after a backup catcher, writes David O'Brien, and keep in mind that McCann -- who had shoulder surgery after the season -- probably won't be ready to play until sometime in May. The Braves need someone who is capable of catching regularly early in the season.

• Not surprisingly, the Cleveland Indians have targeted starting pitching as they prepare to consider offers for Asdrubal Cabrera, who is signed through 2014. Cabrera is regarded by some evaluators as an average or slightly below-average shortstop defensively, but is an elite offensive player at his position, ranking fourth last season in OPS among shortstops. His numbers faded in the second half of last season, but some evaluators believe he simply lost focus as the Indians crumbled.

• The Rays may have the best package of prospects to offer the Arizona Diamondbacks for Justin Upton, writes Marc Topkin.

• The Diamondbacks have thought that Tampa Bay is the second-best possible fit for a trade of talent, behind Texas -- although the Rangers are balking at giving up Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar, shortstops that Arizona covets -- and Upton would give Rays a badly needed presence in the middle of their lineup.

But he could hurt the Rays, in another regard: He is about to get really expensive, relative to what Tampa Bay has typically paid its talent. Upton will make $38.5 million over the next three seasons -- $9.75 million next year, $14.25 million in 2014 and $14.5 million in 2015. The Rays can make that work, but it would mean taking on a player who would absorb something in the range of 20 percent of their payroll.

• I wrote here yesterday about how baseball's general managers were much more forceful in their support of additional instant replay in the recently concluded meetings. What some executives hope is that there is less handwringing over finding the perfect system, with perfectly defined parameters, and that the focus be on correcting the worst major mistakes when possible. The general sentiment, said one official, was to create a system that can reverse egregious calls, and not micromanage every call.

• Oakland can comfortably wait to see if Stephen Drew winds up coming back to them for a deal. The Athletics will get another shortstop in place, but no matter who they get now, it won't be someone so good (barring an Cabrera trade) that they couldn't adjust if Drew decides to return to Oakland.

Drew hit .223 with a .657 OPS in 79 regular-season games in 2012; he turns 30 next March.

• Steve Kelley writes that Seattle Mariners fans deserve a bat like Josh Hamilton's. All it takes to alter a player's market is one aggressive, desperate team -- and it's clear that the pressure on the Mariners to make a big move is mounting.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Toronto Blue Jays have recalibrated the limits of their multiyear deals.

2. Jeff Luhnow's work at the GM meetings has set the stage for the rest of the offseason, writes Brian Smith.

3. The Minnesota Twins signed a pitcher.

4. Bill Madden thinks the Colorado Rockies are crazy for giving new manager Walt Weiss a one-year contract. Mark Kiszla thinks Weiss needs to change the team's defeatist mindset.

I think he just needs better pitching.

5. R.A. Dickey wants to go back to the New York Mets.

6. The Philadelphia Phillies need their key guys to be healthy, writes Matt Gelb. Michael Cuddyer could be an option.

7. The Detroit Tigers need to take a more measured approach this offseason.

8. A new Brewer is glad to be with them.

9. The Dodgers spent a lot of money on a lefty.

10. Don't expect the Baltimore Orioles to make a run at Ian Kinsler, writes Eduardo Encina.

Other stuff

• A scout saw great potential in Mike Trout when he was in high school, writes Jeff Fletcher.

• Rick Hummel thinks Buster Posey will win the MVP.

• Bill Center checks in on the San Diego Padres' prospects playing in the Arizona Fall League.

Jose Valverde struggled at season's end, a sign that his time with the Tigers was nearing an end, writes John Lowe.

• Big money spent is no guarantee of success, writes Bernie Miklasz, noting the failures of the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Angels.

• Vanderbilt made school history. It was a great win.

And today will be better than yesterday.