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Boston’s crowded cluster of catching candidates has been a hot topic this offseason. Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway, both of whom present some upside with significant question marks entering 2013, though it appears the team is prepared to start Saltalamacchia when the season kicks off. It also seems likely that the team will utilize free agent acquisition David Ross as the routine backup option, with slugger Mike Napoli catching a handful of games over the course of the season while prioritizing at first base.
Saltalamacchia is the quintessential all-or-nothing slugger, mashing 25 home runs last season despite hitting only .222/.288/.454 with 139 strikeouts in 448 plate appearances. His lack of patience and questionable ability to handle the pitching staff are key concerns for 2013.
Saltalamacchia’s offensive problems are largely overstated though, especially considering the role he played on the 2012 Red Sox. Heading into the season, Boston had a seemingly deep lineup that projected the catcher towards the bottom of the order, yet due to injuries and the trade of Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, Saltalamacchia actually ended up hitting 4th-6th in the lineup in 84 of his 121 games played.
While most catchers would be less relied on to produce, Saltamacchia hit the third most home runs of any MLB catcher last season. If his defense sharpens and the pitching staff trusts him behind the plate, sticking with a 27-year old power-hitting catcher hitting at the bottom of a now deeper batting order should benefit both he and the Red Sox.
On the other hand, there is more promise for prospect Ryan Lavarnway, who is a stellar spring away from being considered one of the best young catching options in baseball. Unfortunately, in 46 MLB games last season, Lavarnway showed little sign of the player who launched 54 home runs over two seasons in the minor leagues not so long ago.
Lavarnway has had his fair share of defensive woes behind the plate as well, though recently his defensive abilities behind the plate before the big leagues were commended, including his snap throws to second base which have been reported to align at times with the major league average.
In the end though, Lavarnway has played 63 games with the Red Sox over the last two seasons, and his stats line doesn’t have any indication he’s ready to face big league pitching. In 209 plate appearances, Lavarnway is hitting .172/.230/.286, and his patience isn’t quite there either. Last season Lavarnway had 3.73 strikeouts/walk compared to 3.66 for Saltalamacchia. According to the team, it appears Lavarnway is headed for the minor leagues at least to start 2013.
Regardless, the team will rely on ex-Braves backup backstop David Ross. The 35-year old veteran hit .289/.392/.479 in 2010, and while his numbers have fallen off since then he’s still regarded as one of the better backup options at the position.
One of the interesting strengths of the Red Sox this year is their versatility in aligning their defensive options. If any of their catchers go down, first baseman Mike Napoli has caught at least 60 games in every year of his career. Napoli will likely see some time behind the plate this season, especially if Saltalamacchia is moved and the combination of Lavarnway and Ross isn’t working out offensively.
Despite the uncertainty of who exactly will be the starting catcher on Opening Day, Red Sox fans have plenty to be excited about going forward, with a pair of promising young catchers with plenty left to prove.