The first major free agent domino of the offseason has fallen, and it's at Boston's expense. All-star catcher Victor Martinez will not be back with the team in 2011, instead taking his talents to Detroit, and leaving a gaping hole behind at catcher.
Right now, the three catchers on the Red Sox' 40-man roster are Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Luis Exposito, and Mark Wagner. Salty was once a highly-lauded prospect, Exposito has been solid making his way up through the system, and even Mark Wagner has shown a little off-and-on promise. But let's be clear: none of them are starters for a team of the Red Sox' caliber.
So who could be? Presumably the Red Sox have some sort of plan. Between the 2-year deal and low offers to Victor, they had to have been ready to lose the catcher. So who could pick up the mantle? There are a few options.
The free agent pickings are limited. John Buck was pretty much the best option there, and not only is he gone, but he wasn't particularly good to begin with, given his inability to break a .314 OBP even in the best of years. All that's left are guys like Miguel Olivo--basically John Buck with less power.
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Perhaps the most intriguing name left is Yorvit Torrealba, who has been decent with the bat the last few years and is an elite defender. But he's got BABIP concerns and, if that number goes back to normal, than he's near enough to a black hole at the plate to make the Red Sox run for their lives.
|2010 - Yorvit Torrealba||95||325||31||88||14||0||7||37||33||67||7||5||.271||.343||.378|
Basically, it doesn't look like money alone will get the Sox the player they need.
So that leaves us with trades, and for the Red Sox, a decision on philosophy. Do the Red Sox look to replace Victor's offense (or get as close as possible), or do they take a new direction with a defensive-minded backstop?
If they choose to find another bat, then the presumptive target would be the Angels' Mike Napoli. Seemingly unable to get on Mike Scioscia's good side, Napoli has been relegated primarily to first base. The Sox tried to pick up Napoli last year off of waivers, but couldn't reach a deal with the Halos. Maybe they'll take another shot over the offseason.
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On the other hand, if they decide they were tired of the defensive miscues and stolen bases, the Sox could target Russell Martin instead. While Martin hasn't been the star he used to be as his power has disappeared, he's still a competent player, getting on base at a .350 place, thus dodging the "automatic out" quality that made the Kevin Cash days of 2010 so very dark. There's also the consideration that, were the Sox to use Martin reasonably, as compared to the Dodgers' sticking him behind the plate every single night, that he could rebound.
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The most interesting part of Martin, though, comes from his defense. And I don't mean his ability to throw out runners (decent though it may be) or his ability to block wild pitches, but one of the less understood parts of a catcher's contributions: framing pitches. When Bill Letson came out with his catcher framing metric over at Beyond the Box Score, it placed Russell Martin as one of the best in the business, and suggested that the value of that skill could be surprisingly high. Theo Epstein is known for going after the undervalued talent. Could this be the newest market waiting to be exploited?
Only time will tell what road the Red Sox choose to go down. Maybe they even do end up with some ugly combination of Saltalamacchia and mediocre free agent A, B, or C. It's hard to imagine the Sox fanbase putting up with that, but at the same time, it's also hard to imagine them putting up with the hard-to-see defensive abilities of Russell Martin, or to accept that the $10 million saved by going for Mike Napoli instead of Victor Martinez bought them Scott Downs. In the end, though, it's winning that will determine the success or failure of the offseason, Martinez included, and Theo knows that well enough to make his moves with winning in mind.