The Red Sox made a surprising move Saturday when they agreed to terms with free agent catcher David Ross on a two-year contract worth $6.2 million.
The Sox had no demonstrable need at catcher with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway on the roster. But that may have been the point of signing Ross. Now the Sox can use Saltalamacchia or Lavarnway as a trade chip to fill another need.
Ross, who turns 36 in March, is one of the best backups in baseball, respected for his ability to manage the game and work with pitchers. He hit .256 with nine home runs for the Atlanta Braves last season and started the wild-card playoff game against the Cardinals.
In four years with the Braves, Ross threw out 40 percent of base stealers and became a clubhouse leader.
Ross was briefly a member of the Red Sox in 2008, getting claimed off waivers from the Reds late in August and appearing in eight games. He was on the roster for the Division Series.
Ross hit. 269 in four seasons for the Braves with an .816 OPS. The Braves wanted to retain Ross but not at the price the Red Sox were willing to pay.
Ross’s deal is pending a physical, and the Red Sox reserved comment.
There are plenty of questions for general manager Ben Cherington, as the addition of Ross throws open several possibilities. The most obvious would be trading Saltalamacchia or Lavarnway.
The 27-year-old Saltalamacchia hit .222 with 25 home runs and 59 RBIs last season. His power was somewhat negated by a .288 on-base percentage.
Saltalamacchia has 40 games of experience at first base. But the Red Sox do not see him as a starter at that position.
Lavarnway has long been a favorite of the Red Sox front office. The 25-year-old hit only .157 in 46 games last season but team officials expressed little concern, pointing to Lavarnway’s track record of offensive production in the minor leagues.
Lavarnway also progressed defensively. Once considered raw as a catcher, if not a liability, he was voted the best defensive player at his position in the International League in a poll of managers.
Lavarnway was given the bulk of the playing time in September. Ross would be an excellent mentor for Lavarnway and bring the ability to play more than the average backup.
A lesser possibility would be trading Lavarnway and using Saltalamacchia and Ross as a tandem. The switch-hitting Saltalamacchia is a much better hitter from the left side and Ross is a righthanded hitter. Lavarnway also could have more value in a trade.
A third option would be to keep all three, return Lavarnway to the minors to start the season, and look to make a trade down the road. But it’s far more likely Ross was signed with the knowledge that a trade for Saltalamacchia or Lavarnway was available.
There are several teams looking for catchers, including the Mets, Pirates, Cubs, White Sox, and Mariners.
The Rays and Yankees are in that group as well. But the Sox are unlikely to trade with teams within their division.
The Mets are potential trading partners. A package built around Saltalamacchia could return first baseman Ike Davis or perhaps a starting pitcher.
The Cubs are another possibility. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein traded for Saltalamacchia in 2010 when he was the general manager of the Red Sox and has long been a fan. The Cubs tried to trade righthander Matt Garza in July.
Obtaining Ross allows the Red Sox to take advantage of a thin free agent market for catchers. The best available is Mike Napoli, a player most teams would prefer at first base.
A.J. Pierzynski and Russell Martin also are available. Beyond that, there are an assortment of backups in the market.
A secondary issue is whether this move will affect the pursuit of Napoli by the Red Sox. If Napoli were willing to commit to first base, the Red Sox would be interested. If he insists on catching, the Sox would have to find a first baseman elsewhere.