Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who Will Be the Man Behind the Mask?

The Red Sox are finally starting to play how everyone expected them to play in 2011. Their pitching is coming through in the big time, with Jon Lester pitching like the ace he is, Josh Beckett partying like its 2007, and Jonathan Papelbon playing for a big contract. On the other side, production is beginning to come from the bats as well. Lead off man Jacoby Ellsbury is in the midst of an active league-high 18 game hitting streak. Adrian Gonzalez is holding down the middle of the lineup, hitting .317 with 25 RBIs, on top of three home runs since May 3rd. Even Carl Crawford, the man of the sub-.200 BA in the month of April, has started hitting, recording a hit in each game in May, lifting his average to an otherworldly .211. With all of that being said, the Red Sox still search for their answer behind the plate.

While he has started to perform better behind the plate managing this pitching staff, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has still left much to be desired on the offensive side of the plate. In 23 games so far this year, Salty has hit a .203/.247/.275 triple-slash line. His career line of .245/.310/.378 indicates that he is hitting below his capabilities. One reason is that he is not hitting righties so far this year. In his career, he has a .751 OPS against right handed pitching, but in 2011 that OPS is at just .613. Taking a deeper look at his games, the average ERA of the right handed starters that Salty has faced in 2011 is 3.47, compared to a league average ERA of 3.81. When you take into account that he faced Joel Piniero (.071 ERA, but only two starts) and Mitch Talbot (1.46 ERA in two starts), Saltalamacchia has faced about league-average right handed pitching, and is putting up sub-par numbers.

The Red Sox should not be expecting any sort of improvement out of Saltalamacchia. Even though he has played a relatively small number of games in his career, his lifetime splits show that he stays pretty consistent from month to month throughout the year. In April, Salty hit .216/.273/.275, and his past says that he will stay at somewhere near this level for the duration of the season. Although he has shown greater power numbers after his opening month of the season, his average, OBP and OPS have largely stayed constant from month to month. If the Red Sox are looking for an improvement as the season goes on, they are looking for something that hasn't happened in Saltalamacchia's past.

Boston has not been getting production out of their backup either. Captain Jason Varitek has been horrendous at the plate, with a .157/.246/.216 triple slash line. The thing about Tek is that he is not here for his offense anymore. As the backup, they expect him to hit better than he is, of course, but they really want him to draw on his personal strengths. Varitek has always been great at handling a pitching staff, and continues to do that in 2011. He has basically been Josh Beckett's personal catcher this year, and Beckett is pitching as well as he has since he won the World Series here in 2007. However, the Red Sox need production out of their starting catcher offensively, and it doesn't seem they will be getting it from these two guys.

One quick-fix option they may consider is Michael McKenry, who was traded for back in late March, and is playing well in Pawtucket. So far this year, the former Colorado Rockie has hit .340/.446/.511 against AAA pitching. This is production that hasn't been seen from a catcher in Boston since Varitek's All-Star days. However, McKenry has only played in 14 games, and has never even come close to those numbers in his minor league career. The Red Sox have no other internal options ready for the bigs, so they will probably be forced to look outside the organization.

The player whose name I have heard the most when this subject is brought up is Bengie Molina. Never mind the fact that the Red Sox would have arguably the three slowest men in baseball with Molina, Gonzalez and Ortiz. This would not be a smart move, in my opinion. Molina has not shown lately that he would be a major upgrade over Salty. Consider his 2010, which he split between the Rangers and Giants, where he hit .249/.297/.326. This year, he is 36, and did not have a Spring Training to get himself ready for the season. That lack of spring preparation would only exacerbate his natural aging. The Red Sox need to look for someone who can come in right now and produce at an acceptable level.

It is because of that last reason that I say that the Red Sox bite the bullet and wait out Saltalamacchia. His hitting has not been good, obviously, thus far in 2011. However, he is starting to gain more intangibles dealing with the pitching staff, and the starters are starting to look comfortable throwing to him. If he is able to continue to improve in dealing with the staff, he can be very valuable for this team. With the offense starting to hit, the pitching becomes important as the Red Sox look to charge into the MLBs elite in May. So, Theo would be wise to allow Salty to become more comfortable in a Boston uniform, and hope he can start hitting by the All Star break. If that doesn't become the case, the team may need to make a deal for a low-level starting catcher at the deadline. However, there is a lot of baseball to play until that point.

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