The Miami Marlins made a surprising move yesterday when they designated catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia for assignment. The team did so immediately after reinstating Saltalamacchia from the paternity list (congratulations, by the way, here are your release papers!). The club is apparently all set to move on to the J.T. Realmuto era, just a year and change into Saltalamacchia's three-year, $21 million deal.
Indeed, Saltalamacchia had a mediocre season last year, batting just .220/.320/.362 (.304 wOBA) last season and had a below-average campaign defensively. It was not a great start to his Marlins career, and it was not helped by the fact that he had a bad year framing pitches as well. Out of 27 catchers with at least 350 plate appearances, Salty was 21st with 1.4 wins by FanGraphs last year and 22nd with 1.2 wins by Baseball Prospectus. In other words, he was definitely below average last year, and the win totals reflect that.
Still, the Marlins were not paying much for Saltalamacchia's meager production, as $7 million pays for a little more than a win in the current free agent market. If the team had no realistic alternatives, Saltalamacchia's current production at $14 million for the remainder of his contract would not be unreasonable. After all, he is not likely to continue hitting .069/.182/.207 (.186 wOBA). But the Marlins do have an alternative in prospect J.T. Realmuto, who quietly took the primary playing time away from Saltalamacchia in recent weeks since his promotion. With Jeff Mathis hurt, the Fish switched to the younger, more athletic Realmuto, figuring that the differences in their bats were not very large at best.
To with, ZiPS expects Realmuto to bat .245/.294/.345 (.287 wOBA), while it sees Saltalamacchia hitting .228/.305/.396 (.308 wOBA). Over 400 plate appearances, that represents a six-run difference between the two players. If you think Realmuto is a positive behind the plate, you could probably stretch their difference into six runs, making them equivalent over the full year. That starts to tilt towards Realmuto if you buy into the idea that Saltalamacchia's bat may have slowed and he is beginning the stark decline of the strikeout-prone hitter.
This is all very reasonable. What does not seem reasonable is the Marlins' sudden decision to essentially release Saltalamacchia, especially given the current timing. Realmuto is not lighting up the night sky necessarily, batting .237/.250/.342 (.255 wOBA) in 40 plate appearances after last night's game. It would not surprise anyone if Realmuto struggled his first time through as a big-league regular. It also would not surprise most people to see Saltalamacchia bounce back a bit from his horrid start and put up batting numbers at least close to the ones he had last season. That might not be worth being a regular starter with bad defense behind the plate, but it would be worth having on the bench if the team has to pay for his contract anyway. This is especially true given the presence of Jeff Mathis, who is a prime definition of a replacement-level player and should not take precedence over Salty.
Now this could be a moot point if the Marlins have a trade set up for Saltalamacchia, as is being rumored. However, the team does not have to designate Saltalamacchia for assignment to trade him; they are free to trade him while still having him on the roster to contribute. Mathis is out for a few more weeks following a broken fourth digit, so he is unavailable to return immediately. Currently the Marlins plan on having no official backup to Realmuto at catcher.
For most positions, this is not a problem. Teams can get away without an extra third baseman or outfielder for a short period of time. But catchers generally get regular rest days, particularly on day games after night games. Instead of keeping Saltalamacchia around to spell Realmuto, the team chose to open up the 40-man roster spot and figure out the trade scenario with Saltalamacchia away from the team. That roster spot should not be wasted on a bad backup catcher like Jhonathan Solano or Vinny Rotino, the current other options in Triple-A. Instead, Miami will probably fill it with a random player who will not help Miami this year.
This might have been understandable if Saltalamacchia was making a fuss about transitioning to a more backup role, but all indications seem to point to him being accepting of his new job, if a little miffed. Rich Waltz and Tommy Hutton made mention that Salty has been more than willing to accept the role. So far, most sources have said nothing about him being a clubhouse distraction due to the benching.
Now the club may end up trading for a backup catcher in an eventual deal, but that would be similar to bringing up a bad backup catcher from the minors; it adds no benefit to the roster other than to make up for losing Salty. The team could have instead opted to keep Saltalamacchia around until Mathis returns from injury, giving the team an opportunity to build his value back up and take on a slightly better trade value. There is literally nowhere to go but up with Salty's value, so the Fish did not run a high risk of further devaluing his stock. Now the team has to carry another backup catcher on their roster and will get a third one back in Mathis in the coming weeks, neither of which were probably as good as the one they are trading.
Moving on from Saltalamacchia is an acceptable move, even if it is a bit early. Realmuto is probably about as good, if not even better, than the incumbent. But moving on this quickly and suddenly seems unnecessary and leaves the Major League roster in an awkward position.