By Maureen Mullen
BOSTON On the coldest night (so far) this winter, the annual Hot Stove Cool Music roundtable was held inside Fenway Park, looking out over a field buried under a blanket make that several blankets of snow. With Hall of Fame baseball writer Peter Gammons serving as moderator, the discussion ranged from pitch counts, to injury rehabs and prehabs, to learning how to watch baseball games and dissect video, to dealing with the media.
The Hot Stove Cool Music events, which include a concert Saturday night at the Paradise lounge, is now in its 11th season. It was the brainchild of Gammons and former Herald baseball writer Jeff Horrigan. Proceeds benefit A Foundation to be Named Later, a branch of the Red Sox Foundation. Since the first event in 2000, more than 3.5 million has been raised.
The panel included Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, former Sox pitching coach and current Blue Jays manager John Farrell, former Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, Sox pitcher Rich Hill, Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo, Sox trainer Mike Reinhold, farm director Mike Hazen, former pitcher and current Sox sports psychologist Bob Tewksbury, and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Comedian Mike OMalley served as emcee.
The evening included many good natured barbs. When Schilling admitted, I talk a lot, Farrell quickly offered, Dont sell yourself short. When Epstein said hed let someone make a trade for a charitable donation, Saltalamacchia figured that was how he got to Boston.
Later, Epstein addressed several Red Sox-specific issues, including Saltalamacchia, who was hampered by a thumb injury last season, and is now expected to be the full-time catcher after the departure of Victor Martinez with Jason Varitek as his back-up.
Off-season reports on Saltalamacchia, who has been working out twice a week in Florida with bullpen coach Gary Tuck, have been positive.
Hes been working out really hard. Hes kind of reformed his body a little bit. He looks to be in great shape and has improved flexibility, Epstein said. Hes has made some alterations to the way he sets up and receives the baseball, and his transfer and his release down to second base. So hes not taking the opportunity for granted. Hes tackling it head on and looking for ways to get better so that he can step up and be a big part of this club.
Saltalamacchia and Varitek have already shown that they can work together extremely well. Saltys always looked up to Jason even before he was part of this organization. And I remember a conversation with Tek four years ago or so when Salty came thru with the Braves and he was talking about how much potential he had. Both being switch-hitting catchers and caring about the defensive side of the game first, I think they have a lot in common. Jason didnt blossom as a big leaguer until he was around the same age that Saltys going to be this coming year 26 in May, hes a very willing mentor and Saltys a very willing disciple, so to speak. So I think that relationship will be a plus for us. And its always really important when you have a young player getting established that his complement behind the plate isnt someone looking to take his job or get more at-bats. Its someone whos looking out for him. The whole might be greater than the sum of the parts for those two in their relationship.
Saltalamacchia said his priority changed after the Sox acquired Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. After that he felt he could focus more on his defense.
I think people have to remember that hes still a young player, Epstein said. Whenever youre breaking in a young position player youd like to do it in a way that takes as much pressure off him as possible. So you dont want to put a young player third in the order and put him in a situation where he has to drive in a lot of runs for you, carry the offense by getting on base. Youd love to be able to hit a guy ninth. Tell him to focus on his defense and let his true offensive abilities come out through confidence, comfort, and repetition.
Epstein also addressed the shortstop situation, which could be the only spring training controversy, with incumbent Marco Scutaro coming off a shoulder injury and Jed Lowrie performing well in the second half of the season when he was finally healthy after a lingering wrist injury and a bout of mononucleosis.
I think we have two really talented shortstops on the roster at different phases of their career and theyll both end up helping this club win, Epstein said. How it shakes out in terms of playing time will be up to manager Terry Francona and ultimately the players will determine their own roles. If were a better team with one guy playing two-thirds of the time and the other guy playing a third of the time and moving around, then thats what well be. If it looks like well be a better team with a more traditional arrangement or a time-share, then thats what well do. The players ultimately make those decisions for you. But in this case the manager makes the decision.
But Epstein would not say the shortstop job is open.
"No, I'm not saying that, he said. Im saying Scutaro signed here to be a shortstop and he should be healthy when he comes to camp and hes going to play a lot of shortstop. But were not good enough where we cant use every available resource that we have.
If Jed Lowrie is someone who can play a good shortstop and can play a number of positions, hes going to help this team win. Im sure hes going to see some time at shortstop. But Marco was our shortstop last year and until something changes, thats how its going to be. Im just making the point that we believe in both guys and we think they can both help us win.
Epstein also addressed the minor league system, which has lost several top prospects in trades over the last few seasons Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo and Reymond Fuentes for Gonzalez in December; Bryan Price, Nick Hagadone, and Justin Masterson for Martinez in 2009 and another, Ryan Westmoreland, who has been sidelined by a serious illness.
I like our minor league system, Epstein said. I think one of the reasons we were able to make the Gonzalez trade was because we really like the upside of a lot of the kids in our system, both at the upper levels -- Ryan Kalish we feel is really close to becoming an everyday player for us -- and then at the lower levels there's a lot of kids we feel based on what we know have potential to be everyday players if not well above-average players in the big leagues. Their track records might not even demonstrate that yet because theyre only 19, 20 years old, and just starting out in their careers. We like the depth that we have and I think if you take a snapshot just with what we have in our system right now at the end of the year I think the industrys going to be saying a lot better things about those players than theyre saying right now. I think a lot of guys are going to have big years. And, off of what I think was really good draft last year, we now have four of the top 40 picks in a very deep draft. Were excited about adding to our system.
Epstein said he is mostly done with offseason moves before heading to spring training.
I think our big moves are probably over, but you never say never, he said. If theres an opportunity that presents itself, were always looking to get better. But for the most part we feel good about the team were bringing to spring. Were spending most of our time this month working on player development and scouting issues, getting ready to start the year on all fronts.
Maureen Mullen is on Twitter at http:twitter.commaureenamullen