Standing near the stall he inherited from Jason Varitek a couple of years earlier, in a chaotic clubhouse that reeked of victory's sweet stench, Jarrod Saltalamacchia was asked if he'd considered the possibility that that night -- the night the Red Sox beat the Cardinals and became world champions again -- could be his last in a Boston uniform.
"This season I've been enjoying every pitch, every out knowing it could be my last -- but tonight especially," he said. "I was just looking at the stands, and seeing everybody, just looking at the jersey and enjoying every minute of it. Hopefully I can be back."
Part of his desire to be back, he explained, was based on the home he'd found at Fenway Park after a tough stint in Texas. Billed as a big-time prospect even before he broke into the big leagues on his 22nd birthday, he was a major piece of the package the Braves sent the Rangers for Mark Teixeira, though when he struggled to establish himself with his new organization he was back in the minors full-time by age 25 -- and that's when the Red Sox made a trade that would afford him another opportunity.
"It saved my career," Saltalamacchia said of the 2010 deadline-day swap. "I was kind of stuck in a spot where I didn't feel I was wanted or needed or going to be able to go anywhere. Then I came over here and it was just night and day. I felt wanted, I felt they knew what I was capable of doing. They actually gave me a chance. I can't thank these guys enough."
Tuesday, though, it became apparent that the Red Sox no longer wanted Saltalamacchia -- at least not for the next three years, and not at the price he figured to command after the best season of his career. There are a couple of quality catching prospects in the pipeline, and rather than commit to the 28-year-old, they opted to entrust the position to a pair of 37-year-old veterans for 2014, and reevaluate their options again next winter.
Whether Saltalamacchia even wanted to stay has been called into question, and rightfully so. He lost his starting job after his throwing error ended Game 3 of the World Series, and put the Sox in a 2-1 hole. David Ross started the next three games, and Boston won them all.
That made Saltalamacchia look expendable, and it's only natural if he was disappointed that after catching 242 games over the past two seasons, he was on the bench when the club climbed to the summit of its sport -- but from this seat, the timing says everything: Tuesday morning it's revealed that A.J. Pierzynski will sign with the Red Sox; Tuesday evening comes word that Saltalamacchia is inking a deal with the Marlins. Based on that, it sure would seem as though the player waited until the door was definitively shut in Boston before dedicating his future to Miami.
More important than Saltalamacchia's own desires, though, are the questions about whether this was the right decision for the Red Sox. Most immediate is the one that asks, Is it wise to count on two catchers who were in high school before Xander Bogaerts was born, one of whom has caught more than 14,000 major-league innings, and another who missed months this past year because of two concussions?
But in the bigger picture, it's worth asking whether the Sox will regret letting go of a hitter who this past season became one of 15 catchers since 1901 to slug 40 doubles, and who was among the top three offensive catchers in the American League this year, and whether they might have misjudged the market for Saltalamacchia's services.
As it turned out, reports indicate that the agreement with his hometown Marlins will pay him $21 million over three seasons -- equating to an annual value of $7 million. After the money paid to the likes of Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz, most (maybe including the Sox) were anticipating the price would be higher than that for Saltalamacchia, who was easily worth that much this past season, when Baseball-Reference calculated his WAR to be 2.9. He was probably worth that in 2012, too, when his WAR was 1.4.
We don't know now what Saltalamacchia will be worth in 2014 -- or, perhaps more importantly, in 2016. But one way to project is to look at what players whose offensive careers most closely compare to his through age 28 have done after reaching that age.
Again according to Baseball-Reference, that list of comparables is led by Jody Davis, the ex-Cub and Brave who earned MVP votes and a Gold Glove award in 1986, at age 29. More contemporarily, the comparisons also include John Buck (at No. 2), Ramon Hernandez, and Michael Barrett.
Of the 10 players most comparable to Saltalamacchia, all played at least three more years in the majors, and played five more years on average. Only a couple have played the remainder of their careers with an OPS+ lower than 90, so for the most part they've all been right around the league average -- as has Saltalamacchia, owner of an OPS+ of 95. And that's only one of the categories in which the expectations Saltalamacchia has set for himself based on his performance to this point are close to what history's 10 most comparable hitters have done henceforth.
Here's how the numbers compare, based on average per 162 games:
The two biggest differences come in terms of strikeouts and slugging percentage, but over the past couple seasons the second has helped to justify the first in Saltalamacchia's case. And while these comparisons don't account for defense (beyond purely position) in their calculations, WAR totals do, and Ed Hermann -- a backup by the mid-1970s -- was the only negative player after age 28 on Saltalamacchia's list of comparables. Meanwhile, the average player in that group posted a WAR of 4.6 after turning 29.
So, then, there's a basis to believe Saltalamacchia will be an average or slightly above average player for the next few years. And a player of that caliber, at an important position, who is familiar with both the city and the pitching staff, and who is young but experienced, would seem to be worth the price of $7 million per season. Particularly for a team with the resources of the Red Sox.
Obviously Boston's brass doesn't agree, or at least it doesn't think he'll represent as good a value as the alternatives by the time he's turning 31, and guys like Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart are ready for The Show. Though Pierzynski is a temporary stopgap, they're clearly looking longer-term in this decision.
And have left Saltalamacchia -- whether he likes it or not -- looking at Fenway, its fans, its home jerseys, from the outside.
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