Just add Salty: Catcher aids Red Sox run
From backup's backup to elite player, Saltalamacchia not done yet
BOSTON -- Chipper Jones tried persuading Jarrod Saltalamacchia to play first base. So, too, did Andruw Jones and Brian McCann.
McCann, the franchise catcher in Atlanta, was blocking Saltalamacchia from Major League playing time. By moving from catcher to first, Saltalamacchia could squeeze himself into the lineup.
"At the time, I think I was saying, 'Yeah, I'll do whatever,'" Saltalamacchia said. "I wanted to be in the big leagues. I wanted to catch, but I wanted to do whatever it took to play in the big leagues and win."
Saltalamacchia gave first base a shot, making 14 appearances there in the early parts of the 2007 season. But before he could get settled, he was traded to the Rangers as the centerpiece in a young pool of talent that, in turn, sent All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira to the Braves.
Teixeira, once Baseball America's top-ranked prospect, was the prize of the July 31 Non-Waiver Trade Deadline in 2007, and Saltalamacchia helped sweeten the deal for Texas.
So interested was Texas in having Saltalamacchia's bat in the lineup that the Rangers, having seen little of his defensive work at first base, played him there the very next day.
Saltalamacchia went 1-for-5, seeing just nine pitches in five at-bats.
He never got the full-time opportunity he was looking for in Texas, nor did he show the progression the Rangers had sought. He struck out 219 times in 653 at-bats over parts of four seasons for Texas, and while he was still just 25 years old, unfortunate injuries and defensive concerns had helped the Rangers forget that Saltalamacchia was once the 18th-ranked prospect in baseball.
The Rangers put Saltalamacchia on clearance, and the Red Sox picked him up for pennies on the dollar, giving up three Minor Leaguers who have combined to make just 10 Major League appearances since.
Saltalamacchia was once the brightest catching prospect in baseball. His fall had been mighty.
"He's someone we hope we're buying low on right now," then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said after the July 31, 2010, trade. "We feel like he's a classic guy with a high ceiling who needs a change of scenery."
The pride of Royal Palm Beach High School in Florida (his jersey is now retired there), Saltalamacchia began fielding serious interest from scouts as a junior. They had been showing up for three years anyway, in part to get their eyes on Kason Gabbard, a left-handed pitcher the Red Sox drafted in the 29th round in 2000. But Saltalamacchia had become the prize.
"I didn't go to my senior prom -- I didn't go to homecoming -- I never did anything like that," he said. "I was always going to showcases or tournaments. I was always focused on baseball, nothing else.
"I wanted to play football, but my dad didn't want me to. Didn't want me to get hurt."
His junior year, Saltalamacchia committed to Florida State to play for Mike Martin, a Hall of Fame coach now in his 34th season at the head of the program.
"I talked to Martin, and Martin said, 'Make me a promise: If you go first round, take your money and go. But second round or whatever, come to school,'" Saltalamacchia said. "At that time I was like, 'All right, sounds like a good idea.' I didn't think I was going to go first round. I thought I was going to go later and go to school."
The Braves made Saltalamacchia the 36th overall pick in the first round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft.
"I can't throw that away," he told himself.
By the time Saltalamacchia got to Boston in 2010, the Red Sox had been scouting him for half a decade.
They were patiently waiting, Epstein would later say, for the price tag to come down. They struck once they got the chance.
"This was a guy that had been pursued for quite a while," manager John Farrell, who was the team's pitching coach at the time of the trade, said Tuesday. "And yet, as a switch-hitting catcher, there's a lot to deal with, a lot to contend with, not only trying to master two swings, to learn a pitching staff year-in, year-out, to have that translate into game-calling."
Victor Martinez was Boston's starting catcher, but his contract was up after the 2010 season. So too was Jason Varitek's, though he would later sign on for the '11 season, his last before retiring.
With no clear heir to the backstop throne in sight, Varitek and then-bullpen coach Gary Tuck took a special interest in Saltalamacchia's development. Perhaps he could be the guy.
"I think they were going to give me the opportunity to show what I could do," Saltalamacchia said. "They wanted me to be with Tek and Tuck. I think Tuck, he didn't put his job on the line, but he was the main one saying, 'Hey, this kid is good, let's give him a shot and get him over here.'
"I was working with those guys, and that's what they wanted me to do. That's why they sent Tuck down in the offseason to work with me. He's put in more time than anybody."
Slowly, Saltalamacchia's pure talent began to reveal itself. His power came out immediately. He hit 41 homers between the 2011 and '12 seasons, though he was never the everyday catcher.
Given the opportunity in 2013, Saltalamacchia's production erupted. His pitch recognition improved, and he raised his average from .222 to .273; his OPS from .742 to .804; and his doubles from 17 to 40, which set the new Red Sox record for doubles by a catcher. He struck out 139 times for the second straight season, and his home runs dipped from 25 to 14, but his WAR (wins above replacement) almost doubled, going from 1.9 in '12 to 3.6 in '13.
"The improvement and the growing phase that Salty went through as an established catcher was pretty special to watch throughout the year," outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "He literally got better in every single aspect of the game."
From the backup's backup -- Gerald Laird, Matt Treanor, Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez were all in front of Saltalamacchia on the depth chart at one point in Texas -- to a top-10 Major League catcher, Saltalamacchia enters the 2013 Postseason with one last guaranteed chance to make his mark on the baseball world.
The 28-year-old is a free agent at season's end.
"I think everybody within the industry thought that this was an extremely talented player," Farrell said. "You don't know exactly when all of it's going to come together, what he's had to deal with as a catcher. But it's happening. It's happening at the right time for us."
David Ross, now Saltalamacchia's backup, intercepted him before he could get to his locker following Tuesday's workout. Ross opened his arms and embraced for a big hug.
It is not unusual for Saltalamacchia to be on the other end of these warm gestures.
"I love you, man," Ross said.
Elsewhere in Fenway Park, two pictures capturing two famous hugs can be found. And they would probably be recognized by even the most casual fan.
In both shots, Varitek is hugging the team's closer following the final outs of Boston's most recent World Series victories.
Those were from 2004 and '07.
The Red Sox have a new catcher in 2013. Perhaps even beyond.
Jason Mastrodonato is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.