The Red Sox were disappointed when Jarrod Saltalamacchia was not selected to the American League All-Star team last season. That’s how far he had come as a player.
Saltalamacchia ended the regular season with a .273 batting average, 40 doubles, 14 home runs, and 65 RBIs. His .804 OPS was fifth among catchers with at least 450 plate appearances.
Saltalamacchia also improved defensively, particularly with his handling of the pitchers.
But the Red Sox were not entirely sold on Saltalamacchia. Manager John Farrell benched his usual catcher for the final three games of the World Series, putting David Ross in the lineup against the Cardinals.
Saltalamacchia had hit .188 in the postseason and made several defensive mistakes.
When Saltalamacchia became a free agent, the Red Sox offered him a two-year deal knowing that likely would be topped by another team. It was, with the Miami Marlins signing Saltalamacchia for three years and $21 million.
The Red Sox quickly moved on, signing A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year deal worth $8.25 million. He will be the primary catcher with Ross expected to be a regular contributor.
Pierzynski, who turns 37 later this month, hit .272 with 17 homers and 70 RBIs for Texas last season.
“I’m just trying to fit in,” he said. “Going to Texas last year, I fit in pretty well. Everybody I’ve talked to and guys I know in the Red Sox clubhouse are great. They’re guys that I’ve known.
“They want to win and it’s all I want to do.”
Ross, a strong defensive catcher, hit .216 last season. He spent nearly 10 weeks on the disabled list recovering from two concussions suffered in August. But Ross hit .280 in September and started six games in the postseason. The Sox won five of those games.
Farrell could use a platoon, as Pierzynski bats lefthanded and Ross righthanded. But expect Ross to start occasionally against righthanders as well. The Sox have great faith in his abilities.
The decision to let Saltalamacchia go and sign Pierzynski to a short-term deal was based on the organization’s faith that 23-year-old Christian Vazquez or 21-year-old Blake Swihart will develop into an above-average starter by the 2015 season.
“We really wanted to do two things to the catcher position. We wanted to maintain that position as a strength going into 2014 and also long-term. We looked at several different options,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “We just felt like A.J. represented the best choice for us.”
Vazquez was taken in the ninth round of the 2008 draft when he was 17. A native of Puerto Rico, he has worked out with the Molina brothers during his offseasons and has developed a quick release similar to that of Cardinals star Yadier Molina.
A poor hitter early in his professional career, Vazquez hit .289 with a .771 OPS in 96 games for Double A Portland last season. That earned him a late-season promotion to Triple A Pawtucket. Vazquez played in one regular season game and four more in the International League playoffs.
Swihart was the 26th overall pick of the 2011 draft. As a high school player in New Mexico, he dreamed of playing for the University of Texas. But the Red Sox signed Swihart with a $2.5 million bonus.
A switch hitter, Swihart hit .298 for high Single A Salem last season with a .366 on-base percentage. His power (nine home runs over 726 at-bats) has yet to develop, but scouts believe it will as he gets stronger.
Swihart has a higher ceiling than Vazquez, but also the athletic ability that would allow him to switch positions.
The Sox are expected to open the season with Vazquez at Pawtucket and Swihart at Portland.
The prospect perhaps closest to the majors is Dan Butler, whose improbable rise could land him in a backup role if a need arises. Butler was a bench player at the University of Arizona and was not drafted in 2009. The Red Sox signed him out of the Cape Cod League to fill a roster opening at Rookie League Lowell.
Butler made his way through the system and spent all last season with Pawtucket after being placed on the 40-man roster. He is strong defensively and is improving at the plate.
The Red Sox also have Ryan Lavarnway. Once considered the team’s best prospect at the position, Lavarnway has stalled in recent seasons. Now 26, Lavarnway is in the awkward position of not having a role in the majors after playing parts of three seasons in Triple A.