While the Toronto Blue Jays are no doubt one of the teams that will be most aggressive in pursuing an upgrade at catcher in the coming MLB offseason, they are by far the only team needing help behind the plate.
As such, even if GM Alex Anthopoulos does his due diligence and explores every option to move on from embattled incumbent J.P. Arencibia (or to stay with him as the full-time guy going forward), much of what the team is going to be able to do will be reactive more than proactive.
This will be certainly be the case when it comes to bidding war candidate Brian McCann, but is also true of less obvious options like Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
For one, the Boston Red Sox catcher is still in the middle of a playoff run, so much could change over the coming weeks about his stock and Boston’s intentions to try and retain him. That said, assuming all things are equal and that Salty ends up on the free agent market, is he somebody that the Blue Jays should take a serious look at?
Unlike some of the other options, Saltalamacchia may actually represent the riskiest option for any team looking for a potential catcher of the future — if only because his career year also comes in his prime.
Taken at face value, that in itself wouldn’t be much of an issue; after all, wouldn’t any team want a 28-year-old coming off his best season in his prime? The 3.6 fWAR he accumulated for Boston would say he’s that man, but whether a team is actually buying high here is a valid question.
The simple thing would be to look at this .273/.338/.466 and say that his production has been buoyed by a career-high and likely unsustainable .372 BABIP, but that wouldn’t be giving Saltalamacchia his due credit for the improvements that he’s made.
And while they certainly haven’t been as drastic as his 2012-2013 OPS bump from .742 to .804 would suggest, it’s definitely worth pointing out that he was essentially a line drive machine this season, limiting his fly ball rate to career-low 38.7 percent to the benefits of a career-high 28.6 percent line drive rate.
That’s enough cause for a significant BABIP jump as his career LD rate is 22.9 percent, even if that liner approach came at a price of a 12.6 percent HR/FB rate compared to 20 percent last season.
Still, even though he is hitting the ball harder in general and is thus more zoned in as far as the numbers will illustrate, it’s not like Salty has undergone a full transformation here. Yes, he has improved his swinging strike rate from 14.6 percent in 2012 to 13.8 this season, but … well, that’s still a whole lot of whiffs. His overall contact rate has held steady at 69.7 percent (69.8 in 2012), but he is actually making less contact with pitches in the zone (75.8 percent vs. 77.2) from year to year, and making more contact with outside offerings (59.9 percent vs. 57)
What does that say about his approach? Well, he may be trying to be more patient and taking more strikes (46.1 pitches seen inside the zone vs. 45.8 in 2012), but swinging less at those pitches (63 percent vs. 67) may be causing him to fall behind more often, thus explaining his only marginal improvement in the BB/K department (0.31 vs. 0.27).
Which brings up the question: so what happens when the BABIP rate comes back down to earth?
This is all assuming that his second-ranked (if qualified) LD rate is going to come down at some point, and even if one were to be optimistic about his outlook, the fact is that his 2013 season practically screams outlier; it belies a strikeout-prone catcher with a sub-.300 OBP in two of his last three seasons — and one that is likely looking at a minimum three-year contract at a yearly salary way more than his $4.5 million in 2013.
Is the pedigree and upside there? Sure. But on the other hand, the established floor looks a whole lot like what Toronto got out of JPA in 2012:
Salty in 2012: .222/.288/.454, 25 HRs, 0.27 BB/K, 1.9 fWAR
JPA in 2012: .233/.275/.435, 18 HRs, 0.17 BB/K, 1.1 fWAR
In this case, what upside he might provide doesn’t quite diminish the risk that the Blue Jays could end up getting essentially a JPA-plus for a much bigger financial commitment, and if that set of skills is the reason why they’re even looking to begin with … why go there?