The Miami Marlins are starting up their 2014 season with Spring Training, so it is Spring Training around here at Fish Stripes as well. To start off our coverage of the 2014 Marlins Season Preview, we here at Fish Stripes will go down the roster, one by one, and cover each of the Marlins' contributors for the 2014 season. We will start with the position players and move on to the pitchers, and we will cover everything from bench options to the most important names on the Marlins' roster.
Today, we kick things off with the most important free agent addition in the post-2012 era team, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Depth Chart: Catcher
1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia
2. Jeff Mathis
Minor league options: Rob Brantly
Saltalamacchia is a major addition to the Marlins given what they did last season at the catcher position. The Fish trotted out Mathis and Brantly along with the likes of Koyie Hill and Miguel Olivo for 644 plate appearances last season. Marlins catchers hit a collective .198/.249/.280, good for a pathetic .235 wOBA and a 42 wRC+. That means that Marlins catchers were 68 percent worse than the league average at the plate. Overall, catchers last season hit eight percent worse than the league average overall, so the Marlins were significantly worse than your typical big league backstops.
The Marlins knew this going into this past offseason, which is why the Fish were so desperate to improve on the offensive game of their catchers. What better way to do that than to sign the consensus second-best catcher on the market, and to a relatively benign contract no less? Last season, Saltalamacchia hit a comparatively herculean .273/.338/.466 (.349 wOBA) that was 17 percent better than the league average. Those numbers were all impressive for a backstop, even for one with know defensive problems. If the Fish could expect the same production by both sides this season, then the team picked up almost 500 plate appearances of an 85 percent improvement on production. That would be extreme.
But Miami is unlikely to get that much out of Saltalamacchia again, especially considering that that was a career-high offensive mark for him. He hit .273 with an inflated .372 BABIP, and that is where the problem of predicting his future begins. Like most players, Salty is unlikely to reach that mark again, and not hitting a huge BABIP will leave him more susceptible to bad batting averages and OBPs thanks to his terrible strikeout rate. Saltalamacchia boasts a career 29.4 percent strikeout rate that has remained essentially stable over the last few years, In the two years prior to last season, Saltalamacchia hit .304 and .265 on balls in play and twice posted an OBP lower than .300.
Salty's saving quality is his power, and that power is exactly the sort of thing that Marlins Park suppresses. His power already dipped last season under a supposed different approach that emphasized contact, as evidenced by his 14 homers and .193 ISO. That might dip even further with Marlins Park's worse dimensions. Saltalamacchia's power also is not at the level of a Justin Ruggiano or Giancarlo Stanton, who may be able to ignore longer fence distances; Saltalamacchia's average fly ball or homer since 2011 was 282 feet, versus numbers near 300 feet for Ruggiano and Stanton. Given that the power may be the only thing that keeps his offensive game alive, a significant drop in that category may threaten his bat.
But the Marlins have to be aware that there have been legitimately positive developments in Saltalamacchia's game as well. As mentioned in my analysis at the time of the signing, he has improved in terms of walks and has maintained his contact rate over the last three years, meaning that he has at least kept his game stable. In addition, the differences in park factors for home runs in Fenway Park versus Marlins Park may not represent a significant drop in long bombs. The offensive discussion, aside from the certain regression in BABIP, is not all gloom-and-doom.
The problems with Saltalamacchia's platoon splits remain a major concern, but given that very few catchers receive the playing time of a full-time position player, this is somewhat mitigated. Yes, Mathis will probably bat for him against lefties, but those days can represent Saltalamacchia's regular off-days that would have happened regardless of platoon problems.
More importantly for Miami, Saltalamacchia represents a clear improvement over Brantly and Mathis for a second straight season. Even with all the decreases expected in Saltalamacchia's game, the combination of offensive black hole Mathis and defensive sieve Brantly would have been terrible again for Miami for a full season.
Those numbers do not look great, but given what we know the other alternatives likely would have done, the Marlins will take that willingly. Saltalamacchia is expected to hit around 14-16 home runs given his expected playing time, and given that only two Marlins hit more than 10 homers last season, that is a major improvement. Saltalamacchia will not play full-time due to platoon and extra rest concerns for catchers, but 450-475 plate appearances should be expected.
What can we expect to see from him in that kind of time? Given an average of the Steamer and Oliver projections, you might see a batting line of around .230/.300/.400, good for a .308 wOBA and 1.9 WAR in 475 plate appearances. That represents an almost three-win improvement from last season, when Marlins catchers were negative contributors. It also is likely at least a 1.5-win improvement over running the same tandem from last year. The bottom line is that Miami picked up an important improvement from their horrid situation last year, and Saltalamacchia's addition could not have come at a better time.