Marlins Season Preview: Worst case scenario for Jarrod Saltalamacchia?

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The Miami Marlins inked Jarrod Saltalamacchia to a three-year, $21 million contract before the 2014 season with hopes that he would cement himself as the team’s full-time catcher and produce at a high level those three seasons.

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Unfortunately in 2014, Saltalamacchia regressed to a far cry from his standout 2013 performance playing for the Boston Red Sox. Salty posted a career-low full season OPS and struck out at an appaling 32.9% rate. A brief early season injury opened the door for prospect J.T. Realmuto to get a taste of the big leagues, and he showed flashes of promise in his first cup of coffee in MLB. Add to that a resurgent season in the minor leagues and Realmuto quickly pried himself into the Marlins catcher conversation.

In his second season in South Florida, Saltalamacchia will have to improve virtually every facet of his game or risk losing his job to Realmuto and possibly finding his way out of Miami. Let’s take a look at the 2015 ZiPS projections for both Marlins backstops:

Player A: .244/.295/.354, 6 HR, 22 2B, 6.3% BB, 19.4% K, .289 wOBA, 1.6 WAR

Player B: .237/.311/.406, 14 HR, 22 2B, 9.8% BB, 30.4% K, .313 wOBA, 1.5 WAR

With defensive value factored in, the two players end up as a virtual wash. Player A is Realmuto and Player B is Saltalamacchia. Salty projects to repeat a season’s worth of power very close to his career average, while Realmuto is expected to suffer growing pains at the plate while still trying to figure out big league pitching, but his glove will make him a very serviceable backstop. These figures assume Realmuto gets nearly a full season’s worth of action at the MLB level.

It could all come down to dollars and scents at the end of the day. If Saltalamacchia and his lack of contact labor sluggishly out of the gates in 2015, it might tempt the Marlins to cut ties with the 29 year-old (he turns 30 in May) who will earn $7 million this season and $8 million in 2016. Realmuto is set to earn league minimum this year and doesn’t reach arbitration until 2018, so he represents a much cheaper option worth what should be an almost identical number of wins.

But I’m hesitant to give up on Saltalamacchia just yet. He struck out last year nearly three percent more than his career average, an Adam Dunn-ian clip. He’ll still K at around 30% this year, but he has always proven that he can get around on a pitch and hover somewhere around the 12-15 home run mark each year. 2014 was also his first year back in the National League having spent the last seven years in the AL. He won’t hit 25 home runs like he did his last season in Fenway, but unless he has completely lost it at still a relatively young age, expect a marginal rebound by Saltalamacchia in 2015.

If Saltalamacchia is once again a black hole at the plate, however, he doesn’t possess the defensive prowess to warrant a spot on the Marlins 25-man roster. Realmuto receives praise for his work behind the plate, so the Marlins might be better served giving their top prospect the starting job midway through the season, with the runs he’d save defensively far outweighing the dip in offense he represents in the Marlins lineup.

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Next: Mat Latos scratched from first spring start

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