|SALTALAMACCHIABig Varitek fan|
Jarrod Saltalamacchia can't hide his excitement when he hears rumors of being traded to Boston. Nothing against Texas, he insists, where he's trying to wade through a catching maze with Gerald Laird and Taylor Teagarden after being acquired from the Braves at the trading deadline in 2007 in the Mark Teixeira deal.
But the Red Sox are a team he has respected and enjoyed from afar. He grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., and his favorite catcher - and idol, of sorts - was Jason Varitek.
"That would be a dream come true," said Saltalamacchia, 23. "I'd love to go there and either work under Jason for a year or two or just go there and catch full-time.
"I love watching Jason. He's like an idol of mine. I watch him and I learn from him and I'd love to be able to spend time with him. I saw him this year and we talked for a while and I learned so much from him in the short time we had."
Saltalamacchia is far from Varitek defensively, but a veteran scout who has watched both of them said, "They are very similar. Jason wasn't a finished product at 23 years old, either. It took a lot of work to get him where he is right now.
"Jason just made the decision that 'I'm going to pull this off' and he went about it by putting his nose in the sand and making it happen. Salty has a chance to get there, too. I think the difference might be that Salty is going to hit and hit for power. He's a big kid and he looks like he could be an offensive force."
When Saltalamacchia was apprised of those comments, he said, "Oh my God, that's so amazing. I just want to get my catching abilities where Jason is."
Teagarden might be the more accomplished defensive player now, but Saltalamacchia's upside is thought of as greater.
"I just need to play," he said. "When I was traded from Atlanta to Texas, I thought I was going to play every day, but we have a lot of catchers here and our season didn't go the way we wanted it, so I found myself playing first base a little bit, catching a little bit, and so I never had any consistency behind the plate.
"I work very hard on my catching and calling games, and trying to build a rapport with pitchers and throwing. When I'm not catching, I watch how Gerald and Taylor do things and just learn how different catchers do things. I just have to do it more."
Saltalamacchia hit .251 with 7 homers and 21 RBIs in 46 games with the Rangers in '07. In 61 games this year, he hit. 253 with 3 homers and 26 RBIs.
One big question is the health of his right elbow, which he hurt last season, leading the Rangers to shut him down after Sept. 1.
"I'm 100 percent. I've been cleared for a month now," Saltalamacchia said. "I've been throwing every day. Throwing to second, to third. I'm getting ready for winter ball in the Dominican next week and I told the team down there I want to catch every day and show everyone that I'm ready to go.
"I think the plan is for me to stay down there for a month so everyone can watch me. The elbow thing wasn't a big deal. I think it was in a game Sept. 1, I fielded a swinging bunt and I went to throw and felt a little pain. But it was just inflammation because I'd been doing so much throwing."
Nobody knows what the finished product will be. There are as many baseball people saying he'll be an offensive catcher as there are saying he'll be a very good backstop. He should hit, which is why both the Braves and Rangers played him at first base to get him at-bats.
He gave a glimpse of his explosiveness in that 30-3 rout of the Orioles on Aug. 22, 2007, when he hit two homers and drove in seven runs.
"I've always had power," he said, "and with my size - I'm 6-4 and I like to play at about 235 pounds - I think I can generate power. I'm a switch hitter, but I haven't had enough at-bats from the right side. I think I can generate power from both sides.
"I work a lot on my hitting. I think I can hit and, like I said, when I get some consistency in playing time, I think that part will come together for me."
Charlie "The Manager" Manuel walked through the general managers meetings in Dana Point, Calif., last week as proud as a peacock. Manuel has been considered kind of a country bumpkin, with his Southern drawl and old baseball stories, but he will likely be looked upon differently now that he's a World Series winner with the Phillies.
"I think that always happens," Manuel said. "Once you've won a World Series, it means you've accomplished something very few people have done. It's an honor, really.
"I always respected the managers who had won one or two, like Terry Francona or Joe Torre, people like that, but now I understand how hard it is to get it and how much work you have to do to win one of these things. Things have to fall right, but you make them fall right. It's all about the players, really. You have good players, you've got a chance."
One thing you see with successful managers is them getting more power on personnel. Manuel fired third base coach Steve Smith after the season and is pretty open concerning his desire to obtain Manny Ramírez.
The cost might be prohibitive, but never underestimate the Phillies' ability to go after a player they want. They offered Mike Lowell a four-year deal last offseason. With new general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. taking over for Pat Gillick, the Phillies might be more apt to go along with Manuel's wishes.
"I think Manny is in the best shape that I've ever seen him in," Manuel said. "His lower body is very strong. His legs are strong. You can tell by the way he hits and the way he moves around in the outfield. He's got a lot of baseball left in him."
No arguing that out call didn't sit well with Hillenbrand
A few questions for former Red Sox infielder Shea Hillenbrand, who last played with the Dodgers at the end of the 2007 season:
Hearing you might be making a comeback to baseball.
SH: "I'm training really hard, working on my hitting and fielding. I feel like I'm only 33 years old and heading into my prime and I feel I can really help a team as a righthanded bat, playing the corners in the infield, DHing. It was really disheartening for me to be out of the game last year knowing I can still compete and hit like I always have. I hired Gregg Clifton as my new agent and hopefully I can get an opportunity somewhere."
What do you think happened?
SH: "I just had a bad year in '07. I was with the Angels and I thought I was going to be the full-time DH but they wound up having Vlad Guerrero and Garret Anderson take some time there, so I wasn't playing much and it was hard for me to stay in any kind of groove at the plate. It was just a bad year, but I never expected to be sitting out in '08. I played for York in the Independent League for half of a year and hit .340 so I know I can still hit and help someone. I had the problem up there in Toronto with John Gibbons [in 2006], so maybe that's followed me. But I've learned a lot and just want the chance to get back into the game."
What have you been doing with your time?
SH: "My wife Jessica and I started a foundation called Against All Odds in Gilbert, Ariz., at our ranch. We rescue animals and rehabilitate them and we invite underprivileged inner-city kids to come and interact with the animals and take part in the activities we have here. It's very gratifying to see the faces of some these kids. We had a 4-year-old in here recently and the people who brought him said they had never seen him smile so much as on that day. We just rescued six horses that were going to be slaughtered. It's really a neat thing. We have a camel and tortoises and all kinds of horses and zebras. It's really neat."
There seems to be a need for righthanded-hitting corner infielders.
SH: "I know my skills and they haven't gone away; in fact, they're better, because like I said, I'm entering my prime years right now. I know from all the players I've played with - like Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Barry Bonds - that I can really help a team with younger players."
Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. George Sherrill is the best lefty closer available in trade that nobody talks about; 2. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said he had his worst year defensively, yet he won his first Gold Glove; 3. Comebacking Mark Mulder is working with an Arizona-based kinesiologist on "functional strength" in his left shoulder; 4. Wonder how Dustin Pedroia would play shortstop; 5. John Henry loves ex-Marlins. Brad Penny has opted for free agency.
Power in this lineup
The top 10 power brokers between now and the winter meetings in Las Vegas (Dec. 8-11):
1. Scott Boras: OK, so you think it's outrageous that he wants Jorge Posada money for Jason Varitek? Maybe. But he gives teams a launching point. If things are stagnant, as they were at the general managers meetings, he at least creates movement and thought. He has the major chips this offseason: Manny Ramírez and Mark Teixeira.
2. Kevin Towers, Padres: John Moores will likely sell the team because of his divorce, so the Padres are reducing payroll dramatically, and Towers has one of the top young veteran pitchers in Jake Peavy to deal. The Braves, Cubs, and Dodgers are going to duke it out for him, but Towers all along has wanted the Braves' package that includes shortstop Yunel Escobar and righthander Tommy Hanson (who throws 93-97 with a nice slider and is currently 3-0 with an 0.48 ERA in the Arizona Fall League). If he gets it, the dominos will begin to fall.
3. Ned Colletti, Dodgers: He has made Ramírez a huge offer, but one that Boras can and will refuse. Extend the two-year deal to four and add a couple million on the back end, and you might have yourself a deal. Otherwise, the Dodgers, who have recently removed $50 million from the books with 13 free agents, are in the middle of a lot of things, including Peavy and CC Sabathia.
4. Tony Reagins, Angels: Their negotiation philosophy reminds me of the In-N-Out Burger franchises on the West Coast. They drive through, make an offer, then get out quickly if the answer is no. They will do it on Teixeira, whom they would love to retain, and they'll likely do it on Sabathia.
5. Brian Cashman, Yankees: The style here always has been, "Ho-hum, nothing much happening . . ." and then, bam! The Yankees have the money, the power, the cachet to do whatever they please. Teixeira, Sabathia, Peavy, A.J. Burnett, Derek Lowe . . . anyone could wind up there.
6. Jim Hendry, Cubs: Heading into the franchise's 101st year without a championship, Hendry has the resources to make something big happen ahead of a new ownership, which could be in place sometime this winter. He's in on Peavy, and if he doesn't get him, he'll be in on Burnett and Lowe. He will find a lefthanded bat, whether it's through trade or free agency. And if he doesn't get Kerry Wood signed, he's going to need a closer.
7. Omar Minaya, Mets: Minaya is one of the more aggressive GMs, and with a new ballpark for his team, competing with the Yankees' new ballpark, he needs to deliver a playoff team. He needs one starter, maybe two, and a closer, so you know he's going to be in on Sabathia and Burnett, Javier Vazquez and Bobby Jenks of the White Sox, and free agent closers Brian Fuentes and Francisco Rodriguez.
8. Kenny Williams, White Sox: He's made a lot of deals and he's not likely to stop now. The White Sox made the playoffs but got eliminated by the Rays, and now he needs to revamp. He's making most of his big hitters available. Yep, you can take Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye off his hands. You can even take Jenks, but you'd better come at him with a boatload. He's going to get a pretty impressive package for Vazquez as well.
9. Theo Epstein: Another who can get into anything at any time. It doesn't appear that the Sox have to do much, but acquiring a catcher of the future is a move that could have ramifications down the road for his divisional rivals if it winds up being an impact player.
10. Billy Beane, Oakland: Any time the A's have money to spend - which isn't very often - it is an interesting scenario. Going after a big-name player could upset the apple-cart with the big-market teams because Oakland may pick off a player (Rafael Furcal?) coveted by them. Would the A's go after Ramírez? One AL GM feels they might.
From the Bill Chuck files: "Over the last seven seasons, Derek Lowe has made between 32 starts and 35 starts a season and averaged 208 innings pitched per season. Over his four years with the Dodgers, each year he gave up fewer earned runs than the year before. His 3.24 ERA this season was his lowest since his 2.58 with the Red Sox in 2002." And this: "Prior to this season, Salomon Torres had appeared in 359 games in relief and had earned 29 saves. In 2008, he appeared in 71 games in relief and picked up 28 saves." . . . Don't forget the Boston Baseball Writers' 70th Awards Dinner at the Westin Waterfront Hotel Jan. 8. For tickets ($150 apiece), write to: P.O. Box 7346, Nashua, N.H. 03060. The Boston chapter has announced these award winners: Fireman of the Year, Jonathan Papelbon; Executive of the Year, Andrew Friedman of the Rays; Manager of the Year, Joe Maddon . . . Happy 37th birthday, Scott Sauerbeck.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com