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Salty or McCann? The catcher debate

Posted by Peter Abraham, Globe Staff  November 5, 2013 09:15 AM

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Here's a little quiz for you:

Player A is a 28-year-old switch-hitting catcher who hit .273/.338/.466 in 2013. He had 54 extra-base hits, 65 RBIs and started 111 games behind the plate. He threw out 21 percent of base stealers and over the last two seasons has played 242 games with an OPS+ of 108.

This player is a first-time free agent and could command a raise from the $4.5 million he made in 2013. It's reasonable to suggest he would receive three years and $27 million.

Player B is a 29-year-old lefthanded hitting catcher who hit .256/.336/.451 in 2013. He had 33 extra-base hits, 57 RBIs and started 91 games behind the plate. He threw out 24 percent of base stealers and over the last two seasons has played 223 games with an OPS+ of 99.

This player was given a qualifying offer, so signing him would cost a first-round draft pick and at least a four-year deal worth $68 million.

Who would you rather the Red Sox sign?

Player A is Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Player B is Brian McCann.

At the moment, it seems more likely that McCann will be catching for the Red Sox in 2014 than Saltalamacchia.

It was telling that when asked directly about Jarrod Saltalamacchia on Monday, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington responded with a general comment and never mentioned Saltalamacchia by name.

“With all of our free agents there’s interest in every one of them,” he said. “I also think its unlikely that every one of them will be back just because the nature of the game, it’s difficult to do that.

“There’s all sorts of permutations and combinations that could work and we’re going to have to, again, keep a conversation going with all of them.”

The Red Sox have made it pretty clear they are Salty supporters only to a point. When David Ross was signed, the Sox said they saw him catching 50-60 games, far more than the average backup. A series of concussions interrupted that plan and Salty carried the load.

He carried it well, too. Saltalamacchia was one of the better offensive catchers in the game [thanks in part to an off-the-charts .372 BABIP] and improved on his game-calling and defense. His throwing also improved to a lesser extent. Saltalamacchia worked well with bullpen coach/catching instructor Dana LeVangie.

But when the postseason started, Ross started seven of the 16 games, including the final three of the World Series. The defensive mistakes Salty made in Game 3 doomed him and he didn't play again. From a defensive standpoint, the Red Sox appear to think they can do better.

McCann is the better defensive catcher [because he is adept at framing pitches] and has power. He also worked well with Ross when they were teammates in Atlanta and they are natural platoon partners given that Ross is a righthanded hitter. By all accounts, he would fit in well in the clubhouse, too.

Is McCann an upgrade on Saltalamacchia? Sure he is. The question would be how well he ages. But the Sox could always use McCann as a DH/backup catcher down the road once Christian Vazquez [or Blake Swihart] is ready.

He would be an expensive bridge to the catcher of the future but an effective one.

As for Salty, the Red Sox did him a huge favor by not making him a qualifying offer. Now he's an unencumbered free agent who offers offensive pop at a position where that is almost impossible to find.

Saltalamacchia would be in instant upgrade for the Yankees, White Sox, Phillies and several other teams.

The Red Sox could regret letting Salty go. If he continues to improve, he could be an All-Star player and his leadership qualities this season made a difference. He also won the trust of the pitchers.

The Red Sox have the money and the opportunity to make a significant move this winter and that would be a good idea. Even champions should try to improve. But letting Salty go and chasing McCann is not as automatic as it might seem.

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