CHICAGO — We understand the Red Sox will have to make a tough decision on Jacoby Ellsbury once the season is over, whether to let him go or try to sign him long-term.
They made another tough decision with Jonathan Papelbon two years ago, letting him go.
But perhaps even tougher than Ellsbury or Papelbon will be the decision on free agent Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Why? Because catchers who hit for power don’t grow on trees. While Saltalamacchia may not be a great receiver, he is only 28.
He is big bodied, which makes it tough for a catcher of his size to be mechanically sound, which is why we’ve always wondered why the Red Sox never allowed Carlton Fisk to work with him. Fisk was big and really good and reached the Hall of Fame. So that’s a different kind of special.
Saltalamacchia already has played with three organizations. The Braves let him go in a deal for Mark Teixeira and the Rangers also let him go in a deal with the Red Sox. He has been a work in progress, a work that is still incomplete.
When Saltalamacchia came up, he was considered an off-the-charts prospect capable of huge things. A switch-hitter with power? Are you kidding? Teams kept thinking they could mold him into a hybrid catcher/first baseman.
So here he is, six years later. After all the hard work, moving around from team to team and position to position, he’s ready to settle down in one town and one position.
He thinks about it, because it’s coming up.
“Little bit,” he said when asked before the Red Sox’ 6-4 loss to the White Sox Monday night whether the uncertainty of his future is on his mind. “In the sense that I don’t want to go anywhere else. After this year, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But at the same time it’s not fair for myself and my teammates to think about that or to try to do something about that because there’s nothing to do. There’s nothing I can do but play. It’s different, because it could be the last year or it could be the beginning of long term.”
If the Red Sox came to him right now with a fair offer, he’d jump at it. But they have not quite taken that plunge. The Sox have catching prospects. In fact they have five catchers on their 40-man roster, but can any of them do what Salty does?
The Red Sox have been waiting for Ryan Lavarnway to take the job, but he too is a work in progress. The Sox are really high on Double A prospect Christian Vazquez, a Carlos Ruiz-type with a great arm who is hitting .267 with two homers and 13 RBIs.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else,” Saltalamacchia said. “I love it here, especially the way things are going this year. We’re heading in the right direction. I want to be a part of it for a long time.”
Whatever you think of Saltalamacchia’s defense, he is one of the hardest-working players on the team. Bullpen/catching coach Dana LeVangie said, “Very coachable. We’ve been working on him being able to frame that low strike and he’s done a very good job. Much improved.”
Saltalamacchia wants to be known for his defense rather than his offense, but there will have to be more improvement, especially with his throwing, before he can start hearing that on a regular basis.
But being a power-hitting catcher, who last season hit 25 long balls on a bad team, will suffice.
“The one thing I’ve done in my career is last year I hit some homers, the year before I hit some homers,” he said. “And I’ve established myself as a good catcher. That’s what I want. I always wanted to be a catcher. That’s the main thing I’ve been working on is defense. I want to get better at blocking balls and throwing. I’ve worked hard on my defense, getting better at game-calling, getting better on blocking balls, throwing. So that’s always been my goal.
“My defensive game has always been my priority and winning. I was traded by Texas before they went to the World Series and I want to be on a team that goes to the World Series and wins it. I just feel I’ve been through the tough times here and now I want to be around for the benefits.
“That’s my focus. And if we do that [win a championship] I’m doing something right. I know I’ll have a job somewhere, but I want it to be here.”
Saltalamacchia, among the most charitable Sox players, never liked playing first base (38 games in 2007). He felt it took away from his development as a catcher. He doesn’t want to be the hybrid that’s developing around the league.
“It’s one of those things, when Fisk played it was defensive catchers,” Saltalamacchia said. “If you could catch you had a job forever. He could do both — hit and catch. Nowadays you see a lot of catchers who go back and forth from catcher to first base to DH. They can hit, but they’re not great, they’re just good enough. I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to be the guy that’s just good enough to catch. I want to be the guy back here who’s leading the team, who’s helping the team win behind the plate. And if I can do something at the plate, that’s great.
“That year I was playing first and catching, I was worn out. I was learning to play first, had to catch and work on my hitting. It was tough. I think the consistency is what I needed. I didn’t have the consistency I needed behind the plate. I’d have two on and two off, something like that.”
In terms of calling a game, Saltalamacchia doesn’t get any complaints.
“That’s probably one of the last things to come because you have to know your staff and the changes around the league,” he said. “There’s a lot of new guys that come in and you have to know how to make adjustments. A lot of times you have to adjust to them, that relationship comes in time. It’s not like as soon as you meet a new pitcher we’re on board. It takes time to develop that relationship. That’s why that takes so much longer.”
Saltalamacchia has thrown out just 1 of 19 runners this season. He feels his throws have been strong but late.
“I feel I’ve always had that and I’ve always had a strong arm, but it’s just getting the ball there consistently,” he said.
His catcher ERA entering the game was 4.34, 14th in baseball. He has five passed balls, which is next-to-last (J.P. Arencibia has six; he catches knuckleballer R.A. Dickey). So some of the defensive numbers aren’t pretty.
Monday night he smacked his fifth homer, a two-run shot in the third off Dylan Axelrod, batting lefthanded. A natural righthanded hitter, he entered the game hitting only .160 from the right side, .289 from the left side. He also almost tied the game in the seventh with a long drive to left-center that was caught at the wall.
“I’m not worried or losing sleep over where I’ll be,” Saltalamacchia said. “My focus is to win with this team, now and long-term.”
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.