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Cornering the catching market? Why the Red Sox signed David Ross

11.10.12 at 3:26 pm ET

The Red Sox need a starting pitcher, first baseman, two corner outfielders and perhaps a shortstop this winter. So naturally, their first move of the winter was … to sign a catcher, David Ross. An industry source confirmed that the Sox signed the 35-year-old to a two-year deal. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported that it was for $6.2 million.

So, almost immediately, the question blares: Why?

After all, the Sox already have both Jarrod Saltalamacchia (under team control for one more year before becoming eligible for free agency after 2013) and Ryan Lavarnway (still six years from free agency).

Saltalamacchia, 27, hit .222 with a .288 OBP, .454 slugging mark, .742 OPS and 25 homers in 2012 while playing in a career-high 121 games. The switch-hitter did show sizable splits, hitting .230/.299/.480/.779 with 24 homers against righties while hitting just .170/.211/.283/.494 with one homer in 57 plate appearances against lefties. Meanwhile, though Lavarnway struggled to a .157/.211/.248/.459 line in 46 games at the end of 2012, team officials continue to trust in the 25-year-old’s minor league track record of considerable offensive success in suggesting that he is big league ready. And so, it seemed likely that Lavarnway and Saltalamacchia would engage in some form of time-share in 2013.

That’s what made the agreement for Ross (which still requires a physical to become official) somewhat surprising. So, again: why?

The Sox have liked Ross for some time, even dating back to the team’s decision to claim him off waivers from the Reds at the end of the 2008 season. In four years with the Braves, he’s been as productive as any backup catcher in the game, hitting .269/.353/.463/.816 with 24 homers in 663 plate appearances while averaging about 57 games a year. In 2012, he hit .256/.321/.449/.770.

Though it might be natural to see the right-handed Ross as a platoon partner for Saltalamacchia, he doesn’t show traditional platoon splits along the lines of those that have characterized former Sox catcher Kelly Shoppach‘s career. Ross had better numbers last year against righties (.268/.333/.485/.818) than lefties (.241/.307/.405/.712). In his career, there’s almost no meaningful distinction in his numbers against the two (vs. RHP: .234/.323/.448/.771; vs. LHP: .244/.325/.438/.764).

So, again: Why?

In short, the acquisition of Ross gives the Sox a ton of flexibility going forward this offseason and even potentially into next season. There’s seemingly a perpetual shortage of quality catchers in baseball. By locking up one now, the Sox put themselves in an intriguing position that gives them all kinds of options going forward. The team is likely to  employ Ross as something more than a traditional backup — a sort of 1A option capable of stepping in and starting if a primary catching option gets injured. He offers strong offensive numbers for a catcher and he’s also highly regarded for his defense and ability to work with a staff.

There are, according to a major league source, at least between five to 10 teams that appeared to be active in the pursuit of catching. There are some solid options on the market (Russell Martin comes to mind, and depending on how a team views him, so does Mike Napoli), but still, the demand is likely to exceed the supply. With a scarcity of quality catching options, some teams likely will reach a point where they feel they’ve lost the game of musical chairs. Indeed, the Sox just accelerated that process by taking one of the top available free-agent options off the market.

At the point where a team surveys the market landscape for catching and doesn’t like what it sees, it would be tough to find a team better-positioned than the Red Sox, who could deal either Saltalamacchia (an established power-hitting catcher in the big leagues who would require only as little as a one-year commitment from a club) or Lavarnway (someone whom the Sox and other teams continue to regard highly; because he would have three years of team control before reaching arbitration, and six before reaching free agency, he likely would carry greater trade value than Saltalamacchia).

There are a number of potential scenarios:

1) Keep Saltalamacchia and Ross, trade Lavarnway: To be clear, the Sox won’t shy from using Lavarnway in the big leagues based on his September struggles. The team considers him major league ready. Nonetheless, with Ross now around for two years, and well-regarded prospect Christian Vazquez now in Double-A, the team is better positioned to trade Lavarnway than it was at the trade deadline. Still, the Sox attach considerable value to Lavarnway — sources from multiple teams suggested that the Sox were willing to discuss trading Saltalamacchia or Shoppach at the trade deadline, but not Lavarnway — so the return would have to be considerable.

2) Keep Lavarnway and Ross, trade Saltalamacchia: In this scenario, the Sox could deal Saltalamacchia at a time when he’s established himself as a rare power-hitting threat for his position, and when he’s in line for a considerable bump from his 2012 salary of $2.5 million. Because of the comfort with Ross, the Sox would have a safety net if Lavarnway struggled as a primary catching option.

3) Keep Saltalamacchia, Ross and Lavarnway: In this scenario, if the Sox do not find a deal to their liking this winter, they would likely option Lavarnway back to Triple-A — an outcome that would be less than ideal given that he’s accomplished most of his development goals in the minors, but an option that still gives the team the ability to take something of a wait-and-see approach with the market.

Under this scenario, if Saltalamacchia came out of the chute with the same kind of first half that he had last year, then his value could become considerable either to the Sox (who would benefit from a player who has shown in stretches the ability to perform at an All-Star level) or on the trade market if/when some team inevitably deals with an injury to a catcher and finds the alternatives to be desperately lacking. The same would hold true for Lavarnway. It’s perhaps imperfect – especially since the Sox may have to add Christian Vazquez and perhaps Dan Butler to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 draft – but such an approach would still leave the Sox in a good short- and long-term position regarding catching depth and trade chips.

With this signing, there’s also one other looming question: What does the acquisition of Ross mean for the Sox’ potential pursuit of free agent Mike Napoli?

That depends on how the Sox view Napoli and how he views himself.

Napoli has said in the past that he prefers to catch as opposed to being used exclusively as a first baseman/DH. However, if he’s open to giving up most or even all of his catching responsibilities (much as Victor Martinez did when leaving the Sox to sign with the Tigers), then he’d still represent a potentially strong fit for the Red Sox, who need a primary first baseman and could also likely use an insurance option at DH for David Ortiz.

If Napoli is open to a job description that doesn’t include catching, then grounds for conversations between him and the Sox would still be in place. If he views a role as a catcher as a prerequisite for signing with anyone, then he probably wouldn’t have a match with the Red Sox given the presence of Ross, Saltalamacchia and Lavarnway.

Overall, the Red Sox created a number of options for themselves while staying ahead of the catching market. Where that leads them remains to be seen.

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