It seems like ages ago when the catcher with that exhausting last name was a “can’t miss” prospect. The moment Jarrod Saltalamacchia was drafted in the first round of the 2003 draft, he instantly became the pride and joy of the Atlanta Braves organization. After “Salty” posted 529 plate appearances and a .314/.394/.519 line with 19 homeruns, 81 RBI, and 70 runs in 2005, Baseball America recognized him as the #18 prospect in baseball. Saltalamacchia couldn’t build on his successful 2005, owning a still solid .230/.353/.380 line with 9 homeruns, 39 RBI, and 30 runs in 377 plate appearances in 2006–but he came roaring back in 2007.
The switch-hitting catcher only had 94 plate appearances in the minors in 2007 season (posting a .309/.404/.617 line) since he was called-up by the Braves when Brian McCann succumbed to injury. The 22 year-old Saltalamacchia impressed scouts by chipping-in a .284/.333/.411 line for the Braves. His stint in the majors also caught the eye of the Texas Rangers, who hadn’t enjoyed a stable catcher since letting Ivan Rodriguez go in 2002. The Rangers acquired Salty, along with Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, and Beau Jones, in exchange for slugger Mark Teixeira.
While Andrus, Feliz, and Harrison all materialized for the Rangers, Saltalamacchia–the highlight of the deal–floundered. From 2007 to 2010, Salty owned a mediocre .243/.309/.383 line in 721 plate appearances. Hitting in the bigs wasn’t Saltalamacchia’s only issue. The big catcher suffered a shoulder injury in 2009, and endured a setback in 2010. When the catcher was finally healthy, he developed a mental block which prevented him from throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Despite contributing a promising .244/.326/.445 line with 11 homeruns, 33 RBI, and 37 runs in 238 plate appearances in Triple-A for the Rangers, the team sold-low, and dealt him to the Boston Red Sox for minor leaguers Chris McGuiness, Roman Mendez, and Michael Thomas.
Saltalamacchia continued his respectable 2010 with the Red Sox, upping his season to a combined .248/.329/.453 line. After losing Victor Martinez to free agency the following season–and having Jason Varitek as the only other catching option–the Red Sox decided to ease Saltalamacchia into their starting catching role in 2011.
So far, it has been a wise decision. Salty has currently hit a .256/.321/.442 line with 8 homeruns, 31 RBI, and 29 runs in 237 plate appearances. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like Saltalamacchia is truly living up to his past-prospect ceiling, but in reality, the 26 year-old ranks fifth among American League catchers in slugging–including just .001 behind former-Red Sox, and current $50 million Detroit Tiger, Victor Martinez. In addition, he’s ranked fifth (tied with both Martinez and Russell Martin) in WAR (1.7), and his 10.8% HR/FB (homerun per fly ball) is better than Matt Wieters (10.1%), Kurt Suzuki (7.0%), Victor Martinez (5.5%), and A.J. Pierzynski (4.8%).
There is no doubt Saltalamacchia still needs to work on his defense (Red Sox’s pitchers own a collective 4.45 ERA with him versus a 3.19 ERA with Jason Varitek), but his solid and constantly improving bat will certainly be a rare asset for the Red Sox in 2012 and beyond. He might never reach his past ceiling, but Salty has far exceeded anyone’s expectations as a Red Sox.