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Sox hoping Saltalamacchia catches on

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  February 17, 2011 10:41 AM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He is long on last name -- 14 letters -- and short on experience, and he is the primary catcher and biggest question mark for a team that has left little left to chance in its quest to return to the playoffs.

If you're looking for an unknown on the 2011 Red Sox, then peer behind the plate, where 25-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been anointed the team's frontline catcher.

It's a bold move for a big market, World Series-or-bust club to go with such an unproven commodity at such a pivotal position. The spin from the Sox is that "Salty" could be a bargain basement find as the catcher of the future, a position the Sox have struggled to fill like their hockey brethren's never-ending search for a puck-moving defenseman. Catching is at a premium in baseball and switch-hitting catchers with power like Saltalamacchia don't grow on trees like the citrus in Florida.

The Sox believe they can unlock the untapped potential of Saltalamacchia, once one of the game's most promising prospects and part of the package the Braves sent to the Texas Rangers in 2007 for Mark Teixeira. It's a position made easier to take by the fact the Yankees overbid to outbid the Sox for Russell Martin and the Sox made a halfhearted effort to retain catcher Victor Martinez.

Turning the Sox' staff over to Saltalamacchia, who has caught 191 games in his big league career, is like handing the keys to a Bentley to a kid with a learner's permit. In this case the licensed driver in the car would be soon-to-be 39-year-old Jason Varitek, who will fill a backup/mentor role. But the Sox have faith Saltalamacchia will catch on.

"We talked about the opportunity for Salty. I think he has actually earned this," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He has worked hard. We wouldn't have just done this out of the goodness of our heart. We want to win really bad. He has bought into everything, and the idea that somebody is dropping a 'Varitek' on you I think is a pretty good compliment."

Francona was referring to the fact that Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, who extol the game-calling virtues of Varitek the way Apple enthusiasts worship at the techno-altar of Steve Jobs, have offered Saltalamacchia the ultimate compliment -- that he evokes Varitek.

"I've told a couple of people I think he reminds me a lot of 'Tek," said Lester. "He has that presence about him. When he talks you listen, and I don't know if that's just because he is a big son of a gun or what. ... It's not like he hasn't been around the block a few times. He's caught a lot of guys, and done some things. I like throwing to him so far. I haven't had a chance to throw to him in a game yet, but from what everybody says he's gotten rave reviews, calls a good game. Just the little bit that I've thrown to him in the bullpen he reminds me of 'Tek."

When apprised of the 'Tek talk, Saltalamacchia showed he's quick on his feet when he's not behind the plate.

"I hope not," he deadpanned. "No, to me that's a huge compliment because it's a guy that I've watched over the years, and I would hope that I could do half the stuff that he's done in his career."

So do the Sox. To try to further his education as a catcher Saltalamacchia spent the offseason in Fort Myers at "Camp Tuck," the labor-intensive, catching bootcamp conducted by Sox catching instructor Gary Tuck. He worked on his throwing, footwork and receiving two days a week for three hours a day.

"Tuckster said he's never seen somebody buy in so much as Salty did. Tuckster really rode him pretty hard," said Francona.

But it's foolish to think Salty is suddenly Carlton Fisk after one grueling offseason.

Saltalamacchia caught just six games and played in 10 total for the Red Sox after being acquired from the Rangers in a July 31 trade; a torn ligament in his left thumb truncated his audition and forced him to have surgery. The move to Boston was a reboot for a career that had suffered a system failure in Texas. Due to injuries and a bizarre problem throwing the ball back to the pitcher, Saltalamacchia rappelled down the Rangers organizational depth chart.

He was the Opening Day backstop for the Rangers last year, but was put on the disabled list three days later with back stiffness. The injury forced him to the minors, where his wild pitches to the mound metastasized. In one game for the Rangers Triple A affiliate in Oklahoma City, Saltalamacchia made a dozen errant throws back to the pitcher, including five in one inning.

The throwing problem is believed to be under control now, but there is no guarantee he won't go "Wild Thing" again.

The genesis of the throwing disorder is believed to be traceable back to a 2009 car accident, after which Saltalamacchia began feeling numbness in his throwing arm.

The good news for Saltalamacchia is that no one is expecting him to match Martinez's .302 average or 20 home runs from last year. If the rest of the Sox' lineup is as advertised any offense from Saltalamacchia is a bonus.

Martinez, who is going to DH in Detroit, was not exactly renowned or revered for his game-calling and defense, and base runners treated facing the Red Sox like it was a 4x400 relay race. The Sox allowed a league-high 169 stolen bases last season, and Martinez threw out just 17 percent of 99 would-be base stealers (17 of 99). For his career, Saltalamacchia has gunned down 21.5 percent.

Still, the Sox are clearly taking a leap of faith by counting on Saltalamacchia to put it all together. Only time will tell if it's faith rewarded or unjustified.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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