Not a Rookie: Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Saltalamacchia was a supplemental first round pick by the Braves in 2003, out of high school in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was considered promising, but rather raw when drafted, and his rookie ball numbers were a mixed bag: .239/.382/.396. He showed good plate discipline, power potential, and a strong arm initially, but needed defensive polish. I gave him a Grade C in the '04 book, noting his tools and the high walk rate but not having a real strong read on how well he would develop.
Promoted to Rome in the Sally League in 2004, Salty hit .272/.348/.437, with a +6 percent OPS compared to league. He improved his defensive skills and showed a bit more polish at the plate, but his overall production wasn't outstanding, granted he was just 19. I moved him up to Grade C+, but noted that he'd been limited to 91 games by nagging injuries and that Young Catcher Stagnation Syndrome was a possibility.
2005 was his breakthrough year. He hit .314/.394/.519 for Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League, posting a +23 percent OPS, a big improvement and in a difficult hitter's park. His defense took another step forward, and he showed good durability by playing 129 games. I gave him a Grade A-, ranking him as the Number 12 hitting prospect and the top catching prospect in baseball.
2006 was less successful. He hit .230/.353/.380 in 92 games for Double-A Mississippi, dragged down by a slow start and injuries. A wrist injury was a big problem, but scouts also reported that he appeared to just be not as quick in '06 as he was in '05, this showing up both on offense and defense. He hit better as the season progressed, but there was a LOT of mixed opinion about him in the Arizona Fall League, some observers agreeing with the Braves that there was nothing seriously wrong, while others felt that his defense in particular had taken a big step backward. I lowered his rating to Grade B in the book last year, though I also decided after the book came out that that was too low and that I should have gone with a B+ given his overall track record. I projected he'd rebound to something like .280/.375/.460 in Triple-A.
The Braves sent Salty back to Double-A instead, where he hit .309/.404/.617 in 22 games. Promoted to the majors, he hit .284/.333/.411 for Atlanta, then was the centerpiece of the Mark Teixeira deal with Texas, where he hit .251/.290/.431 in 46 games. All told he hit .266/.310/.422 in the majors last year.
So what does the future hold?
I'm not completely sure. His career minor league line is .273/.369/.453 in 404 games, which is good but not exceptional. He had a terrific year in 2005 and the beginning part of '07, was decent in 2005, but was mediocre in 2006 and in rookie ball in '03. The mediocre performances can't be ignored any more than the excellent one. Given his age and his power, he should be a very good major league hitter, producing power and plenty of walks as he matures, although perhaps not an exceptional batting average. His ultimate value will depend on whether remains a catcher or not. The Rangers said back in December that he will be given a strong shot at being a full-time catcher, though Gerald Laird is clearly better with the glove right now. At this point we have to see what happens in spring training, and it's quite possible Salty will end up back in Triple-A to begin the season, working on the defense.
Points to consider.
A) Obviously a catcher who can hit is harder to find than a first baseman who can hit. But will his defense be adequate enough to remain a catcher? Opinions on this vary. Some scouts believe it will, others disagree. I don't know myself, having seen him on both good days and bad days I think it's a 50/50 thing. This may be a case where he can handle catching just fine for four or five years until he loses too much mobility with age.
B) If he moves to first base, the pressure to hit will increase, BUT at the same time he will be less vulnerable to the nagging injuries that sometimes limit the development of catcher's bats.
C) The Rangers have a really excellent catching prospect coming up in Taylor Teagarden, who is better defensively and is no slouch at the plate himself.
Best guess: A year from now, Saltalamacchia is the regular first baseman in Texas. He turns into a very good slugging first baseman, not developing into a big batting average guy (hitting .275 or so most seasons ) but producing plenty of power and a reasonable on-base percentage.