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

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

BOSTON -- Every year it seems like there are major issues or question marks to start spring training where the answers are up in the air.

In 2015, the Red Sox lacked an ace, had Hanley Ramirez moving to left field and Pablo Sandoval coming to town.

In 2016, Ramirez was moving back to the infield, but at a new position, and his bat was in question. Sandoval was coming off a year where he couldn’t hit his weight (he hit .245 and he last weighed in at 255 pounds). How would the starting rotation look after David Price?

This year, there seem to be three questions, but in a way, they’ve already been answered.

How will the Red Sox make up for David Ortiz’s absence?

Well, for one, the Red Sox have three Cy Young-caliber starting pitchers (Price, Chris Sale and Rick Porcello) in their rotation.

And two, Hanley Ramirez is coming off a career year with his highest career output in RBI (111) and second-highest home run total (30). And while Mitch Moreland isn’t the greatest hitter, he’s good for 20 or more home runs. Plus, it seems he’s holding a spot for a certain Red Sox prospect who’s bouncing back well from an injury.

 

Will Sandoval earn the starting third base job back?

The weight loss is a good sign, not only for the physical reasons, but it shows he’s mentally committed to being better.

However, that doesn’t guarantee he gets his job back.

“I’m not going to say [third base] resolved itself,” John Farrell told CSNNE.com, “but you know Panda’s done a very good job of committing to get himself in better shape and we’re looking forward to seeing that play to in spring training.”

Even if Panda can’t put it all together, Farrell told reporters before Thursday’s BBWAA dinner, both Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge would be competing for the job as well.

Holt as plan B -- in the infield? Who wouldn’t take that?

Who’s going to start at catcher?

Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart each have their pros an cons.

Leon did it all last year, but went from hitting .383 in his first 39 games to .242 in his last 39.

Vazquez has Ivan Rodriguez-esque abilities behind the plate, but couldn’t keep the staff under control last year and cannot hit.

Swihart, who turns 25 April 3, is the youngest of the three, has the most potential at the plate, but is far and away the worst of the three defensively at the most important defensive position -- excluding pitcher -- on the field.

They all have their drawbacks, but they’ve all shown at some point why they can be the Red Sox starting catcher in the present and future.

Everywhere else, the Red Sox seem to be in a comfortable position as pitchers and catchers reporting to camp draws ever nearer.

“I think the fact that we’ve got veteran players that have done a great job in staying healthy [and] young players that are getting more establishing in their return, we’re in a pretty good place in terms of the overall status of our position player group,” Farrell told CSNNE.com.

And it seems some players are confident in the team’s options as they ready for camp.

“We’re looking good in a lot of areas,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts told CSNNE.com. “Especially the pitching staff, [since] we just got Chris Sale one of the best in the game.”

“Pablo’s definitely going to bounce back, especially with the weight he’s lost."

Francona, Epstein receive grand ovations at BBWAA dinner

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Francona, Epstein receive grand ovations at BBWAA dinner

BOSTON -- “I didn’t feel that love after I made a pitching change in the sixth inning,” Terry Francona said after a 45-second standing ovation from Boston fans upon receiving the MLB Manager of the Year award from the BBWAA Thursday.

It’s without question the love for Francona runs deep in the city. Why wouldn’t it? He was the leader in breaking the 86-year old curse, and wound up winning another World Series title for Boston three years later.

Actually, he was more of a co-leader, working alongside the same person who won the MLB Executive of the Year honors from the BBWAA for 2016.

Theo Epstein -- who received an ovation 17 seconds shorter than Francona, but who’s counting -- reminisced about the Red Sox ownership group that took a chance on a young kid who wasn’t necessarily the ideal candidate to take over as GM of a team, but now that’s helped him build the Chicago Cubs into a winning franchise and establish a great working environment.

This October marks 13 years since the ’04 championship, 10 years since ’07 and six years since the pair left Boston. Without question they’ve left their mark on the city and forever changed Red Sox baseball.

And while the fans showed their undying gratitude for Francona with an ovation almost as long as his acceptance speech, the Indians manager recognized the favor the current Red Sox brass has done for him.

“I’d like to thank Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox for getting Chris Sale the hell out of the Central Division,” Francona said.