FORT MYERS – Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington did a good job this offseason. He blended a repertory company of solid, professional, “good clubhouse guys” with the survivors of the Bobby Valentine era, and in doing so he didn’t have to give up any of the organization’s top minor league kids.
We all know what’s happening here: The Red Sox are planning a “bridge year,” even if nobody with the club is saying so. You’ll see a decent club in 2013 and maybe the boys will be “scrappy underdogs,” as Larry Lucchino has been predicting.
The wake-up call is for 2014. That’s when Jackie Bradley Jr. is in center field, Xander Bogaerts is at shortstop, Matt Barnes is in the rotation and “veteran” Will Middlebrooks is an American League All-Star.
But will Jarrod Saltalamacchia be part of the reborn Red Sox?
The likable Salty is on board to be a Red Sox catcher for 2013, having agreed last month to a one-year, $4.5 million contract. He continues to be a work in progress as he closes in on his 28th birthday May 2, and there are those who believe he’ll settle in as a dependable big league catcher. And though he hit just .222 with a .288 on-base percentage last year, he also socked 25 home runs in 405 at-bats. And power-hitting catchers don’t grow on trees.
But the issue here isn’t so much Saltalamacchia but another catcher on the depth chart, Ryan Lavarnway. The Yale-educated catcher hasn’t shown much in pieces of two seasons with the Red Sox, and like Salty is on the work-in-progress ledger.
Is Lavarnway ready to be a big league catcher? As things stand now, we’re not going to find out any time soon. Saltalamacchia is the No. 1 catcher with journeyman David Ross, whose travels include a stint with the Red Sox in 2008, the backup catcher.
That leaves Lavarnway returning to Triple-A Pawtucket, which makes no sense. If this is going to be the bridge year, then it’s the year to play put-up-or-shut-up with Lavarnway. Salty is a free agent after this season and may well move on, and then what? Is that when the Red Sox are going to see what Lavarnway can do?
This has to be an edgy, uncertain spring for Saltalamacchia, who has been teamed up this year with Middlebrooks as the Red Sox’s Jimmy Fund “co-captains.”
Being named one of the team’s Jimmy Fund reps suggests that Saltalamacchia will be around this season, except Cherington and his baseball-operations buddies probably are scouring the daily spring-training reports to see if an injury inspires some team to seek catching help.
“Right now our expectation is that Salty and Ross are the two proven guys,” Cherington said the other day. “We signed Ross for a reason, and Salty each year has added some things and gotten better.
“He’s capable of being one of the best catchers in the league,” Cherington said. “We’ve seen that, and we’ve seen other parts of the season when he’s struggled. And he’s still a young guy and we expect him to continue to be even better this year than he was last year.”
The Red Sox seem really anxious to pump up Saltalamacchia. They’ve done the same thing with Ross, speaking of him with such fervor that you’d never think he’s played for six teams in 11 seasons.
To his credit, Saltalamacchia has held no pity parties to celebrate his uncertain future with the club.
“That’s not my job and that’s not my focus,” he said.
“The only thing I can control is going out and playing. I’m going out there to prepare for a long season. I’m preparing to play with these guys, go to battle with them.”
And if you think Saltalamacchia is losing any sleep worrying about Lavarnway, well, no, it doesn’t work that way. Saltalamacchia, having had his kick-around years with the Texas Rangers, knows the drill.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said, tossing out a line that goes back to the days when Lou Gehrig was behind Wally Pipp on the Yankees depth chart. “I went through a lot of stuff in Texas that ultimately made me better, so this right now could make him better for the long run. He’s going to have a long career. Ryan’s still young. It’s gonna happen.”
It may happen next year.
But things being what they are, it may happen next month.