One of the absolute truths of baseball is that anyone and everyone possessing even the most tangential of connections to the game -- from the lowly bleacher-seat occupants and grizzled, underpaid minor league scouts all the way up to the high-level team executives -- is magnetically drawn to star-level talent. It wins games, sells tickets and captures imaginations. Acquire star-level talent at a position where it's rightly valued at a premium due to scarcity (at catcher, second base, shortstop and center field, generally speaking), and you just might have something incredibly special on your hands.
This line of thinking was particularly prevalent in the context of Rangers fandom some 30-odd months ago when the likes of Elvis Andrus, Engel Beltre and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were brought into the fold -- the last of whom drew these sorts of pre-2008 raves from esteemed Baseball Prospectus authors Kevin Goldstein and Nate Silver: "Big, athletic catcher with hitting skills, plus power and a patient approach ... doesn't have a glaring weakness, and only really needs some refinement ... still has plenty of time for growth, and PECOTA sees him rounding out as a .274/.370/.478 player by the time he's 26." Tempered expectations? Please. The hype machine was already humming along at maximum capacity.
And so the former top-20 prospect trundled along, faring neither spectacularly nor terribly at the plate through 2007-2008 (seasons which he largely served in a backup capacity behind the since-deposed Gerald Laird), but nevertheless flashing the occasional signs to suggest that the hype wasn't misplaced and that he was, in fact, on the doorstep of developing into something special. Then the injury- and ineffectiveness-marred disaster that was last season happened, and, well, this is where we find ourselves today in terms of 2010 player forecasts for the enigma that is a soon-to-be-25-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia:
[Note: As always, take projection-derived playing time estimates with a huge grain of salt. Truthfully, it would be easier to compare each system's power forecast by placing home runs on a rate scale (HR/PA), but there's no harm in keeping things somewhat intuitive. Also, here is the preliminary four-player list of 2010 PECOTA comps for Saltalamacchia: John Buck, Ben Davis, Mickey Tettleton and Mike Sweeney. Nothing wrong with the latter two, but as for the former two ... yeck.]
Full disclosure: I've never really been all that objective about Saltalamacchia (or, for that matter, Nelson Cruz, but that's neither here nor there), with the enormous initial hype and the great tools and the jaw-dropping batting practice displays all conspiring to render me a hope-intoxicated optimist. Hope that he'll ultimately evolve into the "AL's best-hitting catcher" that Joe Sheehan predicted he would eventually become on the date that the Mark Teixeira-to-Atlanta trade was consummated nearly three years ago. Hope that he'll remember how to lay off bad pitches and learn to embrace the run-creating power of the walk again. Hope that the raw power will finally translate into something more conducive to winning ballgames.
Alas, as things currently stand, Saltalamacchia's composite 50th-percentile projections foresee .255/.325/.410-type production; that would put him a hair above the league-average mark for catchers, but after factoring park adjustments into the equation it's probably a wash. Admittedly, it's hard to sit here on the eve of pitchers and catchers reporting and believe that he could possibly fare much worse than that, but my suspicion is that it's a more plausible outcome than most of us would like to believe.
If he doesn't hit, management is going to find itself in a most precarious situation; flip-flopping Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden would be the most logical solution to this potential predicament, and there are certainly those who would argue that the starting job should belong to Teagarden anyway, but if you pull the plug on the Saltalamacchia-as-the-starting-catcher arrangement, (a) you're basically resigning Saltalamacchia to either a backup role or Triple-A Oklahoma City, and there's considerable question as to how much he would stand to gain from either assignment, and (b) you find yourself desperately hoping that Teagarden hits, lest a full-fledged catching controversy break out.
Back on December 23rd, I mused at some length about how impossibly frustrating it was to see Ian Kinsler so close, yet paradoxically so far away from attaining superstar-level status. That's where the expectation bar used to be set for Saltalamacchia; nowadays, I think most of us would be more than satisfied with anything resembling above-average offense and passable defense.
Youth is still a powerful asset in his corner, but he's now on the doorstep of his prime, and given the continued shift towards the right on the development-production scale at the major league level (which is to be expected, given that the ballclub is now entering its expected pennant-contending window), one wonders just how much more patience the Rangers can possibly muster before they begin contemplating the search for a new "franchise catcher."