Too Little Salty
Fact: In the prospect world, there is no one that creates more polarity than Jarrod Saltalamacchia. It isn't very close.
In a few popular midseason rankings, I have seen everything from Salty's ranking. He's been in the top 25 in one, to near the bottom of a top ten in catchers rankings. Jarrod was at 75 on my own list, and other sites would likely leave him out of the top 100.
If nothing else, Saltalamacchia represents one huge issue facing those who rank prospects: fish or cut bait?
After a good season as a teenager in the South Atlantic League in 2004, many (not including myself, unfortunately) predicted Salty would break out the next season. Scouts raved about Salty's bat, which only shined at times, but winced at his defense. With Brian McCann shining ahead of him in the system, Salty was a second tier prospect for the system.
Things changed last season, dramatically, when the catcher succeeded at one of the minor league's most difficult stadiums. Showing power that rivaled the best in the minors, projecting better offensive numbers for Salty than McCann was a common practice. Johnny Estrada was out the door, this we knew, but who was the right person to project as the Braves backstop?
Thanks to good defense in his Major League cup of coffee, along with solid offensive numbers, most people (this time including myself, thank you) went with Brian McCann. The Braves felt confidence in the slugger's ability to call a game, and didn't hesitate to start the season with him behind the plate. But they were prepared to have a problem of depth, surely the game's best problem to have.
Obviously, this season has not gone to plan. Saltalamacchia has hovered around the Mendoza Line for much of the season; his season numbers are among the worst of any full season qualifier in professional baseball. But in each quote, the catcher has maintained one fact: he's turned his focus from offense to defense this season. We have seen results, as I noted last week, as Salty's caught-stealing numbers are at a career high.
However, no team can employ a catcher with a sub-.600 OPS, no matter how good his defense is. Offensively, there have not even been the faintest signs of upside; Baseball America has reported scouts claim Salty looks lost at the plate. At the same time, McCann has predictably risen as one of the NL's better catchers; surely a player the Braves want for much of the next decade.
Surely the question most commonly circulating through the Braves player development channels is what method should the team take next to solve the catcher's problems. Do you put him at DH the rest of the season, and force him to tackle offense with the effort he's put on his ability to catch? If so, are you ready to accept Salty's future does not lie behind the plate? The Braves aren't, and have shown much in allowing Jarrod to stay behind the plate, and in AA this season.
In my latest rankings, I did not have Chris Iannetta ranked ahead of Saltalamacchia. Iannetta is in the midst of his own breakout season, poised to catch for the Rockies as early as 2007. His bat was better than both Ian Stewart and Troy Tulowitzki in AA Tulsa, and his defense is better than Salty's. How?
Hope. The Braves need to make a change with Saltalamacchia, and should likely finish the season with something dramatic. But the player we saw last season cannot be simply lost. The Braves must now find him, and when they do, we'll see that Salty deserved to be ranked among the game's top 100 prospects, if not in the top quarter.