Never underestimate the impact a good catcher can have on a pitching staff, which is why the signing of David Ross may wind up being the Red Sox’ most significant one this offseason.
It’s everything from the pitcher being confident in the catcher and what he’s calling; the catcher’s ability to throw out a runner (Ross threw out 37 percent last season) and bail a pitcher out of a jam; blocking a ball at an opportune time; and getting a pitcher straightened out if he’s lost his composure.
This, and more, is what the Red Sox missed last season after Jason Varitek retired.
The pitchers, the pitching coach, the manager take most of the blame, but having a catcher with the ability to throw out runners, call a good game, block balls, and one the pitchers have the utmost confidence in, is also part of the equation.
“When you saw that David was going to catch you, you got kind of excited,” said Derek Lowe, who played with Ross in Atlanta. “He’s outstanding. He reminds me a lot of Varitek. He went over the scouting reports like Tek used to, but he thinks outside the box, too. There were days where he’d make you throw pitches that maybe weren’t in the scouting report, but on that day those pitches took advantage of whatever weakness a certain hitter had. He’s really good. That was a heck of a signing by Boston.”
Ross, who hit .269 with an .816 OPS in four seasons with the Braves, had been a journeyman until finding a stable role with the Braves. What keeps a guy like Ross a backup is his bat, but even that improved last season with the element of power (nine homers in 176 at-bats).
Ross had a brief stint with the Red Sox in 2008, and that’s where he caught John Farrell’s eye. The Sox signed the 35-year-old Ross to a two-year deal worth $6.2 million.
The salary means the Sox consider him more than a backup. They may also be find pitchers fighting to have Ross catch them, as they did with Varitek for many years.
“We had a good feel for him in ’08, and then he went on and really established himself,” Farrell said. “His track record is such that he builds a rapport with the pitching staff and the other catchers, as well. Even when he’s not in the game he has an effect on things. His leadership tends to filter down to the catchers and to the pitchers.”
Farrell said Ross is a willing mentor.
“It was an important part of our consideration when we signed him,” Farrell said. “It’s in his nature to help the other catchers,” Farrell said.
Tom Glavine, who broadcasts some Braves games, saw a lot of Ross.
“There’s no question the pitchers are going to love throwing to him,” Glavine said. “He’s an outstanding defensive catcher who throws about as well as anyone I’ve seen from back there. He shuts down a running game. I’m not saying some of the elite base runners can’t steal off him, but he’ll shut down the other guys. You just don’t see teams crazy about running against him.
“He wasn’t your typical backup catcher where you expected a drop-off [offensively] when he started. It seemed every time he played, David did something offensively to help the team, whether it was a home run or a big game-winning hit or moving the runner.”
Lowe said of Ross’s offense, “I think it was a matter of him playing more and feeling more comfortable as a hitter. He started catching Tim Hudson every fifth day and then got more work, and when [Brian] McCann went down he got to play a lot.”
The Red Sox will have to sort out Ross’s role in spring training, especially if they retain all of their catchers. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the starter, and after hitting 25 home runs last season he will likely see significant time.
Ryan Lavarnway has little else to prove in Triple A and his righthanded power is what got him to the majors. And if Mike Napoli’s contract snafu is cleared up, another veteran catcher will be added to the mix, although Napoli’s primary role is at first base.
“We want him to catch, so his role is more than the normal 35-40 games that a backup catcher traditionally gets,” Farrell said of Ross.
Glavine said the Braves will miss Ross, even though they signed Gerald Laird to be their new backup at less money.
“I think that’s a great signing for the Red Sox,” Glavine said. “You never replace a Jason Varitek because those guys are just so special. But David replaces some of it. He’ll improve a pitching staff.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Liked the Cubs’ signing of Carlos Villanueva as a back-of the-rotation starter. He pitched for John Farrell last season and made some nice starts (except against the Red Sox). Thought Farrell might get him signed with Boston, but there are concerns about his durability.
2. Why not sign Cody Ross over Jonny Gomes? Well, cheaper, I guess, and there’s some sentiment that Ross may not repeat his numbers of last season. He still had a decent market, with the Mets, Phillies, and Rangers interested. Ross always has used Michael Cuddyer and Josh Willingham as comparables, and they signed three-year deals for $21 million-$31 million. After Shane Victorino’s three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox, you can see where Ross would want to be in that ballpark.
3. My only criticism of the Red Sox this offseason is that I thought they needed one more superstar in that lineup, and they didn’t get him, at least not yet. It was good that they tried for Joe Mauer and asked about Troy Tulowitzki, players who would have made a dramatic impact.
4. While the Cubs appear to be building with a Nationals model, they can’t believe they’re too far away because they signed Edwin Jackson to a long-term deal and were hot after Anibal Sanchez before he re-upped with the Tigers.
5. Patrick Languzzi has put together an excellent packet of information on Dwight Evans in hopes the Veterans Committee will consider Evans for the Hall of Fame. Languzzi focused on Evans’s offensive exploits — including the fact that he hit more homers than any player in the American League in the ’80s – since most know about his defensive exploits. Evans’s time on the Hall of Fame ballot has expired and now can only be considered by the Veterans Committee.
6. So far, the Red Sox have avoided giving up a draft pick, not wanting to risk their signing allotment being affected by more than $1 million.
7. Farrell has been in Fort Myers, Fla., with his new staff, getting to know some of them and working out logistics. “It’s a big facility and we’re just trying to work out the timing of things, the transfer of players from one field to another and how that would all work, so we can make spring training as efficient as we can,” Farrell said.
8. Asked two scouts for the worst signings of the offseason. One said the Royals’ three-year, $25 million deal with Jeremy Guthrie, and another said Ty Wigginton’s two-year, $5 million deal with the Cardinals.
Apropos of something
My Hall of Fame ballot in last week’s Sunday notes triggered some angry and nasty responses since I selected Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, and Jeff Bagwell, who were at the very least suspected of using steroids, as well as Craig Biggio, Tim Raines, Jack Morris, and Alan Trammell.
I am among a growing number of voters who have stopped trying to sort through the players who were caught vs. those who weren’t. Those in my camp feel that many players dabbled in steroids or other PEDs during this time.
Was it wrong? Of course. Would these players have been Hall of Famers had they been 100 percent clean? I’m projecting that Bonds and Clemens, who were named in the Mitchell Report, would have been. If you don’t think they were Hall of Fame performers, that’s just crazy.
My policy used to be that steroid users didn’t get my vote, but that changed as I began to realize the playing field, in my opinion, was fair. So, do I wipe out an entire generation of players and never vote for them, or do I understand the era and what, in my opinion, was more the norm, and accept that it happened?
What I will not do is vote for anyone who tested positive after the steroid policy was put in place in 2003.
Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmeiro won’t get my vote unless there’s a compelling reason why they were taking PEDs when the rules indicated they couldn’t and when 99 percent of the players against had negative tests.
I also get the argument that steroids were illegal, that there didn’t need to be a policy. But amphetamines were also taken illegally by players in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. As one Hall of Famer told me, “They handed them out in the clubhouse in big bowls. Take as many as you want. Don’t think some of the players could have performed without them.”
Amphetamines are now on the list of banned substances, so evidently they had some effect on performance.
Should we kick all those players out of the Hall? Should we kick out all of those massive offensive and defensive linemen who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who took steroids in the 1970s, ’80s, and beyond?
Tom Glavine, a 300-game winner who surely will reach Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2014, said, “It’ll be a tough call for the voters and I’m glad I’m not making that call.”
Updates on nine
1. Nick Swisher, OF/1B, free agent — The Red Sox are trying to avoid losing a draft pick, which is why they haven’t gone real deep with Swisher yet. However, the longer this Mike Napoli contract dispute goes on (over concerns about his hip) and the longer Swisher is out there, could there be a match? The timing may not be right, as Swisher seems to be closing in on where he might play. The Indians are making a compelling case, but it’s hard for a player to project Cleveland as a winning situation given their financial restraints.
2. Joel Hanrahan, RHP, Pirates — The Red Sox and Dodgers are competing for him, but which team has the starting pitcher to meet Pittsburgh’s demands? The Dodgers have Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, and the Red Sox have Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves. Not sure any of those four will get it done, as the Pirates may be thinking more along the lines of Felix Doubront. Even with Francisco Liriano signed to a two-year deal, the Pirates are looking for one more starter.
3. Brett Myers, RHP, free agent — A guy who used to throw 200 innings as a starter and was an effective closer is still out there. The market for him may soon develop, and while the Twins already have acquired Vance Worley in the Ben Revere deal with the Phillies, and have signed Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, and Rich Harden, they could very well dabble in Myers, who should also garner interest from the Padres. He would appear to be one of the next big pitchers to go, along with Kyle Lohse.
4. Derek Lowe, RHP, free agent — The 39-year-old said he’s heard from five teams, all of which want him to be a swingman. But Lowe is resisting. “I’ve heard the same thing from everyone,” Lowe said. “I want to be a starter and feel I have a lot left in being a regular starter in a rotation and making my 30-plus starts. I can still do that. It’s frustrating to see other starters who have come off injuries get a shot, and I’ve never been hurt and can still help a team. I’m sure things will get going for me in January. I want to pitch. I’m nowhere near ready to retire.”
5. Ryan Dempster, RHP, Red Sox — The big question now is, will Dempster pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic? There’s a lot of pressure for players to compete for their countries. Teams want to cooperate with Major League Baseball on this front, but there’s growing concern that nothing good comes to the player or team by accelerating a pitcher’s time to get ready. Injuries have resulted (remember Daisuke Matsuzaka?).
6. Cody Ross, OF, free agent — The Rangers remain interested, and it appears they will have to dive into the Ross/Michael Bourn market in an effort to replace Josh Hamilton and Michael Young. Ross was surprised that the Red Sox didn’t make him a top priority, but now the Phillies also have some interest.
7. Lance Berkman, 1B/OF, free agent — Berkman still doesn’t know whether he wants to play, or whether he wants to play for the rebuilding Astros, for whom he played most of his career. The 36-year-old switch-hitter can still hit and actually would be quite a nice fit for the Red Sox if his right knee (two knee surgeries last season) is OK. The Sox have been looking for a lefthanded-hitting first baseman/outfielder. Berkman may have had his fill of the American League East with a ho-hum stint with the Yankees in 2010, but he could tattoo the Wall, for sure.
8. Justin Smoak, 1B, Mariners — With Kendrys Morales now a Mariner after a gutsy deal with the division rival Angels for lefthander Jason Vargas, Smoak could be moved. According to a major league source, the Orioles are said to have some interest. The Orioles also have been linked, along with the Red Sox and Nationals, to Adam LaRoche, but the Sox and Orioles are hesitant to give up a draft pick to sign him.
9. Vernon Wells, OF, Angels — The Phillies have been shocked by the prices for outfielders like Ross, so they could opt for a trade. Wells’s name has popped up, and the Angels would have to eat the majority of the $42 million remaining on his deal. But LA is very motivated to deal the 34-year-old, who needs to be motivated somewhere else.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Andre Ethier’s AB/SO ratio has been trending in the wrong direction since 2007, when it was 6.6. In 2007, it was 6.6; 2008: 6.0; 2009 and 2010: 5.1; 2011: 4.7; and last season he struck out once every 4.5 at bats.” Also, “A.J. Pierzynski is regarded as a below-average fielding catcher, yet the league average for catcher’s ERA was 4.08 and A.J.’s ERA was 4.06, and the average catcher threw out 26 percent of prospective base stealers, exactly Pierzynski’s percentage.” . . . Happy birthday to Hanley Ramirez (29), Ross (32), and Victor Martinez (34).Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.