With Mike Napoli a free agent and Geovany Soto a non-tender candidate coming off a season in which he hit .198/.270/.343 and made $4.3 million, the Rangers need a catcher. The Red Sox and Blue Jays, both of whom have already acquired major league catchers this offseason and the latter of whom sent Napoli to Texas in the first place, each have five catchers on their 40-man roster. Nature abhorring a vacuum, it would seem a natural for one of the ten catchers in Toronto or Boston to end up in Arlington by Valentine’s Day. Here’s a quick look at the most likely candidates to do so.
Veteran backup catcher David Ross is the Red Sox’s new free-agent addition, and it is the arrival of his potent right-handed bat that could very well make incumbent Jarrod Saltalamacchia or prospect Ryan Lavarnway expendable.
Contract status: eligible for arbitration (made $2.5M in 2012), entering walk year
One of the game’s top prospects when he was acquired by the Rangers from the Braves at the 2007 trading deadline in the Mark Teixeira trade that also netted Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, and Matt Harrison, Saltalamacchia struggled to establish himself amid a myriad of injuries in parts of four seasons with the Rangers. Exactly three years later, he was effectively dumped on the Red Sox for a trio of non-prospect minor leaguers including righty Roman Mendez and first baseman Chris McGuiness. Saltalamacchia spent half of each of his first two months with Boston on the shelf due to injury, but has stayed healthy since and emerged as the Red Sox’s primary catcher in 2011.
In two seasons as Boston’s starting catcher, Salty has hit .228/.288/.452, with nearly identical lines in each season and a total of 41 home runs. He’s a switch-hitter in name only (SHINO? SWINO?) having hit .196/.239/.351 against lefties over those two seasons, a rough approximation of his career rates from the right side.
In 2011, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield’s final season, Saltalamacchia led the majors with 26 passed balls. In 2012, with Wakefield retired, that total dropped to six, but the six-foot-four Saltalamacchia does not move well behind the plate, and his rate of throwing out attempted basestealers dropped as well in 2012, from 31 percent in 2011 to 18 percent. Looking at his career, the 31 percent was the outlier. Salatalamacchia has a strong arm but has been consistently below average against the running game, something that extends over six major league seasons (well, five of the six) and three organizations.
Saltalamacchia’s lefty-handed power would play well in Arlington, and his other shortcomings and pending arbitration and free agency should make him an inexpensive acquisition in terms of talent. However, if the Red Sox are able to assemble a team this winter that they think can contend in 2013, his value would be much greater to the Red Sox, who have the ideal platoon partner for him in the 35-year-old Ross, who does the things Saltalamacchia doesn’t (hit lefties, play above-average defense) quite well.
Contract status: team controlled until 2017, not arbitration eligible until after the 2014 season
Drafted out of Yale in 2008, Lavarnway is a career .286/.376/.506 hitter in the minor leagues and has comparable career rates at every level from High-A to Triple-A. That said, his power was way down in Triple-A this past season, and he hasn’t hit a lick in 209 career major league plate appearances (.172/.230/.286), 166 of which came this past season. A college player entering his sixth professional season, Lavarnway is getting close to the make-or-break part of his career (he’ll be 26 next August). Another six-foot-four catcher, he’s also a subpar defender who will likely move out from behind the plate in his 30s if he does stick in the major leagues.
Still, his future would appear to be brighter than that of Saltalamacchia, who is more than two years older. That his team will have control over the first five years of that future is huge and should allow the Red Sox to leverage a higher price in a trade for Lavarnway than for Saltalamacchia.
The Blue Jays have the top catching prospect in the game, 23-year-old Travis d’Arnaud, knocking on the door to the majors, reacquired John Buck in their 12-player swap with the Marlins, and claimed backup Bobby Wilson off waivers from the Angels in October. That all points to incumbent J.P. Arencibia being available, though Buck and Wilson could also be moved.
Contract status: team controlled until 2016, arbitration eligible after the 2013 season
In his two seasons as the Blue Jays’ primary catcher, Arencibia has hit .225/.279/.437 with nearly identical lines in both seasons. After the first of those two seasons The Fielding Bible described him “as one of the weakest defensive catchers in the game.” He’s effectively a right-handed-hitting version of Saltalamacchia with more team-controlled years left.
Contract status: due to make $6 million in 2013, the final year of his contract
A long-time Royal, who went from the Astros to Kansas City in the June 2004 deal that sent Carlos Beltran to Houston, Buck hit .235/.298/.407 in five-plus seasons with the Royals, most of them spent as the team’s primary backstop. He then had a career year for the Blue Jays in 2010 after signing a one-year deal as a free agent. Buck hit .281/.314/.489 with a career-high 20 home runs that season, making his first and so far only All-Star team. The Marlins rewarded Buck for that season with a three-year, $18 million contract, but he disappointed in the first two seasons, hitting a combined .213/.308/.358 before being thrown into the megadeal that sent Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle to Toronto.
Buck is a poor defensive catcher (he and Arencibia were two of the three worst defensive regulars at their position in 2011 per The Fielding Bible), and owns a career OPS+ of 87. If the Rangers were willing to take on all of his $6 million salary, they could probably have him from Toronto for a bag of balls, but he wouldn’t be a clear upgrade on Soto, who will surely receive less in the coming season despite his arbitration eligibility.
Contract status: arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, a free agent after the 2015 season
Wilson succeeded Jeff Mathis as the good-field, no-hit backup in Anaheim this past season, and is poised to the same in Toronto in 2013. An injury to Angels starter Chris Iannetta gave Wilson more playing time than expected in 2012, but he did nothing with it. A career .208/.272/.321 hitter in the major leagues, he’s a backup straight from central casting, offering solid work behind the plate but next to nothing beside it.
Lavarnway’s potential at the plate and five remaining team-controlled years makes him the cream of this fairly weak crop, but the Red Sox are surely aware of that as well. Lavarnway is no d’Arnaud, so he could be had, but at a much steeper cost in terms of talent than the others above. Buck, as I said, would be a pointless acquisition given the presence of Soto on the current Rangers roster. Wilson is effectively a replacement-level player. Arencibia and Saltalamacchia both do one thing well, hit for power. Salty could likely be acquired for less in terms of talent despite the fact that he’s a marginally superior player largely because of his salary and impending free agency. Given that the Rangers are in a win-now phase, that would seem to make Arencibia as irrelevant as Buck in this conversation.
Lavarnway remains an unknown quantity at the major league level and could prove to be a total bust, so the Rangers’ best option here might be a Saltalamacchia/Soto platoon. Such an arrangement could be fairly productive given Soto’s .295/.390/.501 career line against lefties, Saltalamacchia’s .237/.301/.481 line against righties over the last two seasons, and the fact that the average major-league catcher hit .248/.318/.400 in 2012. It might even make more sense than giving an expensive four-year contract to a 31-year-old catcher who has never started as many as 85 games behind the plate in a single season.