Saltalamacchia ready for a fresh start with Red Sox

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Saltalamacchia ready for a fresh start with Red Sox

By SeanMcAdam
CSNNE.com

HOUSTON -- When the Red Sox take the field for their regular season opener Friday afternoon at The Ballpark in Arlington, a look around the diamond could fool you into thinking that you're watching an All-Star team.

Indeed, of the nine position players, six have made All-Star teams and four have won Gold Gloves. In fact, the Sox are so deep, two of their four extra players have been selected to All-Star teams and won Gold Gloves at their positions.

Everywhere you look, the Red Sox have experienced, established, and accomplished players.

Then there's Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

At one of the game's most critical positions, the Red Sox have entrusted a player with just 200 major league games to his credit, now playing for his third organization.

Jason Varitek, who has caught more games than anyone else in franchise history, has been made his backup. Victor Martinez, the No. 1 catcher for the last season and a third, was allowed to leave via free agency.

Some might see this as a huge gamble. The Sox, after all, have a mostly veteran pitcing staff, one of the better rotations in either league and the club is the heavy favorite to win the pennant and reach the World Series.

Some, but not the Red Sox.

In Salty, they trust. And Saltalamachia seems grateful for their confidence.

"I'm definitely ready to grab it and go,'' he said recently as the season opener drew closer. "I want to take this opportunity. I've said that in the past, but this is like the opportunity.''

Since being drafted in the sandwich round, 36th overall, in 2003 by the Atlanta Braves, Saltalamacchia has been ticketed for stardom. But he was then packaged (with Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus) to Texas in exchange for Mark Teixeira.

In an organization crowded with other young promising receivers (Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez), Saltalamacchia was to be the catcher of the future.

But then Saltalmacchia developed the "yips'' -- unable to throw the ball back to the pitcher on the mound, much less down to second base to nab would-be base stealers.

It's not an uncommon affliction that has changed some careers (two-time All-Star Dale Murphy converted to the outfield because of it) and ended others (including former Mets catcher Mackey Sasser).

Sent to the minor leagues last spring, Saltalamacchia worked to overcome the issue, which is often largely a mental block. By the time he had corrected the problem, the Rangers had moved on, trading for veteran Benji Molina and making Saltalamacchia available -- cheap -- to the Sox at the July 31 deadline.

When Saltalamacchia looks back on his career trajectory in the last year, he can hardly believe his good fortune. And he knows that, having survived the yips, he can now handle anything -- expectations, pressure -- that baseball can throw at him.

"It was rough,'' he said of the experience. "I had a rough time with that. But I've said it before, at the end, I'm mentally tougher than I've ever been. I hope nobody ever has to go through what I went through. There were nights when I went home and I was just exhausted. It drains you. You're head's spinning, spinning. It made me a better person.

"There were days when I honeslty thought I was going to retire. I thought I was done. I was at my all-time low as far as my baseball career was concerned. I was thinking about changing positions, all kinds of stuff. So, yeah, there are times you're never going to forget. But looking back, it was all about mental toughness.''

A year later, Saltalamacchia is with a new team, ready for a new start, with the full backing of the organization. Though the Red Sox expressed an interest in Russell Martin in December, they never wavered in their belief that Saltalamacchia could handle the No. 1 catching duties.

This spring, his career-threatening affliction conquered, Saltalamacchia feels reborn.

"Exactly,'' he said. "I've never had more fun playing baseball than I am right now. It's fun again. The guys on this team make it so much fun. We're all friends. We have each other's back. Nobody judges anybody. If someone falls, we pick each other up.''

Saltalamacchia hinted that wasn't always the case in the Texas organization.

"There, it was like, 'You might make the team if you don't lose your job.' It was always something negative. Here, it's so positive. It's 'Do what you have to do to get ready. We're behind you 100 percent.' That's something that every player needs. It's hard to explain, but it feels good to have people in your corner, especially with what's expected from this team.

"So for them to say, 'We know you're good. We see it.' . . . It's almost like the past few years, I forgot that at times that I am a good player. You forget that sometimes when you get put in certain situations. So I'm definitely happy and excited. It just feels good. Having the confidence of the team honestly helps us be better players. Nobody realizes that we're humans, that we go through the same stuff everyone else does in our daily lives. So it's nice to have someone in your corner who supports you.''

It's not just the front office, the manager and the coaching staff which trusts him. The veteran pitchers also have expressed support for him.

"As far as the tools go,'' said Josh Beckett, "he's got the tools. That's something the Red Sox have seen basically since I've been here. He's someone they've always wanted and you can't really question their scouting, whether it's amateur or pro, they've done a pretty damn good job."

Saltalamachia spent several weeks last winter working with catching instructor Gary Tuck, who coached him on his footwork, positioning, release and game-calling. It was like a post-graduate course in catching that sped up Saltalamacchia's development even before spring training began.

"I was a lot more prepared,'' Saltalamacchia said. "I hadn't worked with anybody before and to work with Tuck, the guru, it was great. It was something I needed to get where I am right now. Coming into spring training, if I had to do all that stuff, it would be a lot tougher. Coming in, I was above and beyond where I normally would be. I got to work with the best for two months.''

Beyond Tuck, Saltalamaachia has another catching resource in Varitek, who has unselfishly tutored him since last summer, knowing that he was grooming his successor.

Varitek's influence is unmistakable to some of the veterans.

"He's got the Captain to look at and think, 'That's how I want to be,' '' said Beckett. "Everyone is like, 'We want you to be exactly like him -- I don't care if you literally are exactly like him. If you like the same foods . . . everything.' We don't care because we know how that's worked for Tek.''

"I think he's going to be fine. He's got someone he can go to on a day-to-day basis and ask 'What do I do with this?' or 'How do I handle this?' He knows he's going to get a straight answer and know it's going to be a damn good one, too.''

Beckett has noticed Saltalamachia being more assertive, more confident in his dealings with pitchers this spring.

"He's always been kind of outgoing,'' said Clay Buchholz. "But knowing that he's going to be the guy, he's kind of coming into his own.''

"He doesn't fall into patterns,'' said Beckett, ''which is the one thing you want to avoid. Everybody here kind of calls their own game. He's just putting down suggestion fingers. A lot of times when a catcher overthinks things, you fall into patterns. He doesn't do that.''

Varitek, who was drafted in the first round twice and was named the best college catcher of the 20th century by Baseball America, insists that Saltalmacchia has "more talent than I had at that age,'' and has little doubt that his protege will succeed.

But most important, perhaps, is that a year after he bottomed out and fell into a baseball abyss, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with some help, believes it, too.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com.Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

Bean: There's no way to spin a potential Ortiz return as a bad idea

As if there weren’t enough storylines with the 2017 Red Sox, there figures to be the lingering possibility that, at any point, one of the franchise’s greatest hitters will return to make a push for his fourth World Series title.

As Pedro Martinez keeps saying, he won’t believe David Ortiz is retired until season’s end.

And with that possibility comes a good ol’ fashioned sports debate: You’re maybe the biggest lunatic in the whole wide world if you’re hoping for the latter.

There are exactly two potential downsides to Ortiz coming back. One is that the team would be worse defensively if it puts Hanley Ramirez in the field, a tradeoff that seemingly anyone would take if it meant adding Ortiz’ offense to the middle of the order. The other is that we would probably have to see Kenan Thompson’s Ortiz impression again . . . which, come to think of it, would be the worst. Actually, I might kill myself if that happens.  

All the other drawbacks are varying degrees of noise. It basically boils down to the “what if he isn’t good?” fear. Which may be valid, but it shouldn’t be reason enough to not want him to attempt a comeback.

Ortiz is coming off a 38-homer, 127-RBI 2016 in which he hit .315 with a league-best 1.021 OPS. It's probably the best final season of any hitter over the last 50 years.

We also know Ortiz is 41 and dealt with ankle and heel injuries so vast in recent years that he was “playing on stumps,” according to Red Sox coordinator of sports medicine services Dan Dyrek. There is the possibility that he was almost literally on his last legs in 2016 and that he doesn’t have another great season in him.

Unless Ortiz is medically incapable and/or not interested in returning, what would the harm be in rolling the dice? Is it a money thing? It really depends on just how intent the Sox are on staying under the luxury-tax threshold, but it’s hard to imagine that holding them up given that they’ve bobbed over and under the line throughout the years.

The one unacceptable argument is the legacy stuff, which expresses concern that Ortiz would tarnish his overall body of work if he came back for one last season and was relatively ineffective.  

If you think that five years after Ortiz is done playing, a single person will say, “Yeah, he’s a Hall of Famer; it’s just a shame he came back that for one last season,” you’re absolutely crazy. The fact that one could dwell that much on a legacy shows how much they romanticize the player, meaning that in however many years it's the 40-homer seasons, and not the potentially underwhelming few months in 2017, that will stand the test of time.

But he’ll have thrown away having one of the best final seasons ever for a hitter.

Oh man. That’s a life-ruiner right there. A 10-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion totally becomes just another guy if you take that away.

Plus, the fact that he’s a DH limits how bad it could really be. You won’t get the sight of an over-the-hill Willie Mays misplaying fly balls in the 1973 World Series after hitting .211 in the regular season. Ortiz will either be able to hit or he won’t, and if it’s the latter they’ll chalk it up to age and injuries and sit him down. Any potential decision to put him on the field in a World Series would likely mean his bat was worth it enough to get them to that point.

The Red Sox, on paper at least, have a real shot at another title. Teams in such a position should always go for broke. Ortiz has absolutely nothing left to prove, but if he thinks he has anything left to give, nobody but the fans who dropped 30-something bucks on T-shirts commemorating his retirement should have a problem with that.

MLB may make rule changes for '18 season

MLB may make rule changes for '18 season

PHOENIX - Major League Baseball intends to push forward with the process that could lead to possible rule changes involving the strike zone, installation of pitch clocks and limits on trips to the pitcher's mound. While baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed hope the ongoing process would lead to an agreement, he said clubs would reserve the right to act unilaterally, consistent with the rule-change provision of the sport's labor contract.

Union head Tony Clark said last weekend he did not foresee players agreeing to proposed changes for 2017. Under baseball's collective bargaining agreement, management can alter playing rules only with agreement from the union - unless it gives one year notice. With the one year of notice, management can make changes on its own.

"Unfortunately it now appears that there really won't be any meaningful change for the 2017 season due to a lack of cooperation from the MLBPA," Manfred said Tuesday during a news conference. "I've tried to be clear that our game is fundamentally sound, that it does not need to be fixed as some people have suggested, and I think last season was the kind of demonstration of the potential of our league to captivate the nation and of the game's unique place in American culture."

Yet, he also added: "I believe it's a mistake to stick our head in the sand and ignore the fact that our game has changed and continues to change."

Manfred said while he prefers an agreement, "I'm also not willing to walk away." He said he will send a letter to the union in the coming days and plans to continue dialogue with Clark and others in hopes of reaching agreement.

Clark met with Cactus League teams last week, five at a time over Thursday, Friday and Saturday, before departing Monday for Florida to visit each Grapefruit League club - and proposed rules changes were a topic.

"I have great respect for the labor relations process, and I have a pretty good track record for getting things done with the MLBPA," Manfred said. "I have to admit, however, that I am disappointed that we could not even get the MLBPA to agree to modest rule changes like limits on trips to the mound that have little effect on the competitive character of the game."

Clark saw talks differently.

"Unless your definition of `cooperation' is blanket approval, I don't agree that we've failed to cooperate with the commissioner's office on these issues," he wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "Two years ago we negotiated pace of play protocols that had an immediate and positive impact. Last year we took a step backward in some ways, and this offseason we've been in regular contact with MLB and with our members to get a better handle on why that happened. I would be surprised if those discussions with MLB don't continue, notwithstanding today's comments about implementation. As I've said, fundamental changes to the game are going to be an uphill battle, but the lines of communication should remain open."

Clark added "my understanding is that MLB wants to continue with the replay changes (2-minute limit) and the no-pitch intentional walks and the pace of game warning/fine adjustments."

Manfred said he didn't want to share specifics of his priorities for alterations.

"There's a variety of changes that can be undertaken," Manfred said. "I'm committed to the idea that we have a set of proposals out there and we continue to discuss those proposals in private."

MLB has studied whether to restore the lower edge of the strike zone from just beneath the kneecap to its pre-1996 level - at the top of the kneecap. Management would like to install 20-second pitch clocks in an attempt to speed the pace of play - they have been used at Triple-A and Double-A for the past two seasons.

Players also have been against limiting mound meetings. The least controversial change appears to be allowing a team to call for an intentional walk without the pitcher having to throw pitches. In addition, MLB likely can alter some video review rules without the union's agreement- such as shortening the time a manager has to call for a review.

"Most of this stuff that they were talking about I don't think it would have been a major adjustment for us," Royals manager Ned Yost said.

Manfred said starting runners on second base in extra innings sounds unlikely to be implemented in the majors. The change will be experimented with during the World Baseball Classic and perhaps at some short-season Class A leagues. Manfred said it was a special-purpose rule "beneficial in developmental leagues."

Manfred also said Tuesday that a renovated Wrigley Field would be a great choice to host an All-Star Game and Las Vegas could be a "viable market for us."

"I don't think that the presence of legalized gambling in Las Vegas should necessarily disqualify that market as a potential major league city," Manfred said.