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How the Tigers can ruin the Red Sox’ winter (and other leftover Victor Martinez thoughts)

11.24.10 at 7:00 pm ET
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The Tigers could stick a lump of coal in the Red Sox' stocking by signing Jayson Werth. (AP)

For the Red Sox, there was a silver lining to the fact that the Detroit Tigers signed Victor Martinez to a four-year, $50 million deal. Because the switch-hitting catcher was a Type A free agent who was offered arbitration, the Sox stand to receive a pair of draft picks for his departure, both the Tigers’ top pick and a sandwich pick.

The Tigers actually have the highest unprotected pick in the draft at No. 19 overall. The teams with the worst 15 records in the game cannot forfeit their first-round pick if they sign a Type A free agent; it is only the teams in the upper half who can lose their first rounder. The Tigers, who finished the year with an 81-81 record, were the worst team without a protected pick. Because three teams did not sign their first-rounders, Detroit was positioned to draft in the No. 19 spot in the draft. Now, that pick would appear likely to go to the Sox.

But that is not a certainty. The Tigers could truly play the part of offseason spoilers for the Sox if they elected to sign a free agent outfielder like Jayson Werth. (The Detroit Free Press reports that Detroit may pursue either Werth or Crawford, depending on how much owner Mike Ilitch wants to spend.) Werth (as well as shortstop Derek Jeter, closers Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera and starter Cliff Lee) is rated ahead of Martinez in the Elias Player Rankings used to determine what kind of compensation (Type A, Type B, or none) a player will net if signed as a free agent. If the Tigers signed one of those free agents, then their top pick would go to another club (the Phillies for Werth), while the Sox would get Detroit’s second-round pick, roughly 50 picks later in the draft.

So, if the Tigers were to sign Werth, they would not only be grabbing a player who might hold significant interest for the Sox — a player who arguably rates as the best right-handed hitter on the market, and an excellent defensive outfielder to boot — but also they would be tarnishing the one silver lining for the Sox of Martinez’ decision to head for greener backs (and pastures).

–There is virtually no chance that the Sox will be able to replace Martinez’ offense at catcher in 2011. He had an .844 OPS that ranked fifth-best among all big league catchers last year, ahead, even, of Brian McCann. The four catchers who finished ahead of him (Geovany Soto, Joe Mauer, Buster Posey and Carlos Ruiz) aren’t going anywhere. While Jarrod Saltalamacchia has unquestionable upside, but it would be a stretch to expect him to come close to Martinez’ numbers in 2011 after he hit .238 with a .682 OPS over roughly a season’s worth of games (157) spanning the last three years.

Among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances in 2010, the top remaining free agents (by OPS) were Miguel Olivo, whose .765 OPS was almost entirely a product of Coors Field (he hit .211 with a .598 OPS on the road) and Rod Barajas, who hit .240 with a .731 OPS and 17 homers for the Mets and Dodgers.

Barajas is a name worth remembering, since the Sox and Mets discussed the possibility of a deal that would have sent Ramon Ramirez to New York with Barajas heading to Boston in a July swap. That deal was scuttled when Barajas landed on the DL with an oblique injury.

That said, the 35-year-old did almost all of his damage against right-handed pitchers, hitting .256 with a .792 OPS against righties, and .190/.552 against lefties. For his career, he has a .696 OPS against both righties and lefties.

–Martinez is a great player, potentially one of the best couple dozen hitting catchers in big league history. That said, while much has rightly been made of his incredible 2010 season against left-handers (he hit .400/.431/.742/1.173 with 12 homers against southpaws), it is worth noting that he was roughly an average offensive catcher against right-handers.

He hit .257/.315/.379/.694 with eight homers in 371 plate appearances against right-handers. Those numbers were modest. In fact, the average American League catcher hit .245/.312/.374/.686 with eight homers per 371 plate appearances last year.

Clearly, given the prevalence of left-handed pitchers in the AL East (CC Sabathia, potentially Andy Pettitte and/or Cliff Lee for the Yankees; David Price for the Rays; Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil for the Blue Jays; Brian Matusz for the Orioles), the Sox need to find someone who can replace his production against southpaws.

But it is also worth remembering that there are far more right-handers than left-handers. Martinez had more than twice as many at-bats against righties as he did lefties. He managed to do most of his damage last year in roughly one-third of his games; in two-thirds of his plate appearances, he performed at roughly an average (and very replaceable) level.

–It is worth noting that members of the Red Sox organization are not the only ones banging the Jarrod Saltalamacchia drum. At the GM meetings in Orlando last week, Rangers GM Jon Daniels relayed the following assessment of the catcher to WEEI.com:

“I definitely believe he has the ability to be an everyday guy,” said Rangers GM Jon Daniels, the GM who traded Saltalamacchia to the Red Sox. “I’ve always felt that way. We just felt like he needed a change of scenery. Boston is probably a good fit for him. They’ve always liked him. They’ve had success with a variety of different guys behind the plate. Veteran pitching staff probably helps, vs. asking a young catcher to develop a young staff. I hope it works out for him.

“He’s going to work, there’s no question about that. And there’s not a question about the ability. I think in general, with the exception of the [Joe] Mauers and the [Brian] McCanns, it’s a tough position at a young age because there’s so much going on, and I think Salty had that. Plus, he had the weight of being a big name in a big trade [for Mark Teixeira], being called up to the big leagues out of Double-A in a pennant race; there was a lot going on in his life. It’s hard enough to catch and hit every day without having to deal with some of that stuff. Sometimes it doesn’t work out in certain spots. I would be surprised if it doesn’t work out for him.”

–As is usually the case, it will make a lot more sense to judge the Sox’ decision to let Martinez depart at the end of the offseason (and again at the expiration of the four-year deal) as it does now.

Read More: carl crawford, Detroit Tigers, jarrod saltalamacchia, Jayson Werth
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