The trade deadline: Even for contenders, it’s not just about 2011.
July 31 represents the end-point for teams to make trades that do not require waivers. The final days building up to the end of the month invariably feature a flurry of rumors and activity as teams look to improve their positions.
For the most part, contenders will look to address deficiencies that have the potential to trip them up either before or in October. In most instances, teams in the pennant hunt will give up pieces of their future in order to bolster themselves for the present.
But that is not the sole fashion in which contenders — including the Red Sox — view the deadline. Indeed, there was a reminder for the Sox in Sunday’s 12-7 victory over the Mariners (recap) about the value of using this window to eye future improvement.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia delivered one of his finest games as a member of the Red Sox, going 3-for-4 while driving in four. The output matched his season high in hits and represented a new season-best in RBIs.
He is emerging as a trusted leader of the pitching staff while delivering above-average production at a position where offense is at a premium. He has bumped his average up to .259 with a .326 OBP, .454 slugging mark and .780 OPS. Of the 26 big leage catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, the 26-year-old ranks sixth in slugging and OPS.
To put those numbers in context: Saltalamacchia, while splitting time with Jason Varitek, has posted better numbers than American League All-Stars Matt Wieters of the Orioles (.262/.322/.411/.733) and Russell Martin of the Yankees (.227/.330/.375/.705).
And he is in this position because the Sox made a deal to secure his services and address a future need in the minutes prior to last year’s trade deadline. A combination of foresight and fortune led the Sox to make a move in the middle of the 2010 season that solidified a potential area of need for 2011.
READY FOR A CHANGE
A year ago, Saltalamacchia was languishing in Oklahoma City with the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate. He’d kickstarted the Rangers’ season with a walkoff single on Opening Day, but went on the DL days later with a sore back.
When he was healthy, Texas optioned him to the minors due to throwing problems he’d developed the previous year while dealing with thoracic outlet syndrome, an issue that had required surgery after the 2009 campaign. Saltalamacchia had rushed back from that procedure, and it had proven costly.
“Six weeks out of surgery, I was playing winter ball. I wasn’t even supposed to pick up a baseball,” said the catcher. “I was frustrated because I wasn’t feeling like I was 100 percent and didn’t know why, until I talked to the doctors and was told that you shouldn’t be touching a baseball let alone playing.”
He played 63 games with Oklahoma City, and though he fixed his throwing issues, Saltamacchia posted unremarkable numbers. The switch-hitter hit .244 with a .326 OBP, .445 slugging mark and .771 OPS – along with 11 homers and 33 RBI – in 63 games.
Formerly a heralded prospect who served as the major league-ready component of a trade that sent Mark Teixeira from Texas to the Braves in 2007, the former first-round pick sensed that he wasn’t going to get the chance to advance his career as an everyday catcher with the Rangers. He was hoping for a change of scenery.
“I was sitting in Triple-A, doing nothing, basically. So I wanted to get traded, start somewhere new, get somewhere fresh and get back to the big leagues,” said Saltalamacchia. “I felt like I deserved the opportunity. I felt like I should have had the opportunity.
“But it wasn’t being presented to me,” he added. “I was kind of frustrated with that. so I think it was just time for us both to go our own ways. If they felt that I didn’t deserve that opportunity at the big league level, someone else obviously did.”
That someone was the Red Sox. The Sox had spent years discussing the possibility of a trade for the catcher. When he was with the Braves, the team was told that it would take Jon Lester to acquire him. That wasn’t going to happen. With the Rangers, the Sox were told that the cost of acquisition was Clay Buchholz. Again, no.
But by last summer, a couple factors had altered the dynamics of trade talks. First, his career in the Rangers organization had stalled, something that both Saltalamacchia and Texas officials acknowledged. He was stagnating with the Rangers; he had become a player who needed a new organization in order for his career to move forward.
Secondly, the Rangers needed money. Ordinarily, Saltalamacchia might have been a better candidate for an offseason deal, when more teams would have the available resources and roster flexibility to make a run at him. But a unique set of circumstances prompted the Rangers to make him available at the deadline in a year that saw them make the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
By the middle of the summer, the team had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection while a sale of the team was being finalized. The Rangers had taken on payroll over the course of the summer through a series of trades (adding Cliff Lee, Benjie Molina and Jorge Cantu); with the trade deadline looming, there was a significant incentive to unload some salary.
Saltalamacchia wasn’t earning much, but in the context of the club’s needs to balance its books, shedding any payroll was important. Moreover, dealing the catcher gave the Rangers an opportunity to get cash back.
The Sox remained engaged with the Rangers about the catcher, knowing that Victor Martinez was prepared to hit free agency following the 2010 season. At a time when the Sox were scouring the trade market to address some of the shortcomings of its 2010 squad – most notably, in the bullpen – the team recognized an opportunity to address a need for the 2011 campaign in the middle of last year.
Saltalamacchia was aware that a deal to the Sox might happen. Indeed, he was hoping for such an outcome. But as the trade deadline approached, the catcher had started to become skeptical that he would be dealt.
“I was surprised at the time because I was told that nothing could be done, that it was too late and that no deal could be worked out,” said Saltalamacchia.
Right at the deadline, the two teams settled on the names and terms of a deal. Saltalamacchia would finally go to the Red Sox; in exchange, the Sox sent fireballing right-hander Roman Mendez, first baseman Chris McGuinness, a player to be named (catcher Michael Thomas, whom Texas converted to the mound) and $350,000.
GETTING TO KNOW THE NEW GUY
The timing of the deal proved ideal from the perspective of both the player and his new team. Saltalamacchia would become acquainted with his new team and pitching staff, thus giving him a significant head start on spring training the following year. He would also get a chance to start working with Sox catching guru Gary Tuck to refine his work behind the plate.
The organization, meanwhile, would have an opportunity to get to know the catcher while evaluating the question of whether he was indeed capable of handling its catching duties in 2011.
Saltalamacchia was initially assigned to Triple-A Pawtucket and then called up in mid-August. He received only limited playing time with the Sox, as he landed on the DL for a staph infection days after his call-up and then saw his season come to an abrupt halt with a torn ligament in his thumb in mid-September.
Still, he’d impressed the Sox both with a tremendous work ethic and willingness to learn from Tuck, as well as with his work with the pitching staff. The time was valuable in laying the groundwork for Saltalamacchia – after an offseason spent working with Tuck on his catching technique – to assume an expanded role as a leader of the pitching staff in 2011.
“The main thing was just to get me around the guys, get used to the pitching staff, get used to the coaches,” said Saltalamacchia. “That was beneficial for me, because going into spring training, I knew guys. I knew how the program went. I was able to get ready for the season.”
FROM APRIL ADVERSITY TO KEY CONTRIBUTOR
Of course, the path wasn’t without its challenges. In the first month of the season, the Saltalamacchia experiment seemed in jeopardy of going terribly awry.
He got off to a horrific start both as a hitter (batting .138 with a .391 OPS through 12 games) and behind the plate, where runners took off on him at will. He was a lightning rod as the team got off to a stunning 2-10 start, and after entering the year with the expectation of assuming primary catching duties, he drifted into a timeshare with Jason Varitek.
But Saltalamacchia did not shrink from the challenge. Instead, he worked through his problems both at the plate and behind it. The result was that he gained the trust of his pitching staff while emerging as a solid contributor at the plate.
In 52 games since April 17, he is hitting .278 with a .344 OBP, .500 slugging mark, .844 OPS, eight homers and 29 RBI. And, more significantly, the team has been winning with him behind the plate, with a 32-17 record (.653) in games he’s started since his early-season low-point.
“To be where I’m at right now, thinking back to the beginning of the season, I was batting .091 or .100 or whatever. To jump from that is great,” said Saltalamacchia. “But more importantly, that 0-6 start, to bounce back to where we’re at, be three games up, that’s the goal. Obviously personal accomplishments are great because they help the team out. But if I was hitting .200 right now, as long as I was doing the job behind the plate, that’s all that really matters.”
There is satisfaction for the catcher in what he has accomplished, and ambition for what is to come, both on a personal and team level.
“I feel like I’ve done a good job this year. I don’t think I’ve touched what I can do,” said Saltalamacchia. “I feel like I can do a better job at the plate. Catching-wise, I’m happy with what I’ve done so far. But I look to get better. There’s a lot about the game I can get better at. We’re working everyday. It’s a good first year so far, but our goal is to win the World Series. It would be nice to have that for the first year.”
That Saltalamacchia is in position to harbor such visions is a result of the fact that the trade deadline is not simply a time for a team to worry about the present, but also to build for the future. The Sox acquired Saltalamacchia at a time when his value was near its low point in the middle of the 2010 season; as a result, the team had a potentially key area of need addressed for the 2011 campaign and beyond.