BOSTON -- The uncertain catching situation the Red Sox face at the moment is one that bears watching as much as any other area of the club.
Sure, the offensive skills of center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and first baseman Mike Napoli mean they might get more headlines in terms of where things stand with their free-agency status, but there's no more important position on the baseball diamond than the man behind the plate.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia has always seemed at home in Boston, but perhaps it was taken for granted a little too much during the season that he would be back in the coming years. When it came time to make qualifying offers, the Sox made them to Ellsbury, Napoli and Stephen Drew, who all declined, but not to Saltalamacchia.
What the Sox stated, obviously, was that they weren't willing to pony up $14.1 million for Saltalamacchia next year. But can they find a multiyear deal at a lower annual average value that would keep both sides happy?
Though the last thing fans remember about Saltalamacchia is that David Ross overtook the position for the final three games of the World Series -- all Boston wins -- it's important to note what a small sample size that was.
Remember that Saltalamacchia is coming off his best all-around season offensively, as he reached career highs in doubles (40), RBIs (65), slugging percentage (.466) and OPS (.804). The home runs went down from 25 in '12 to 14 this past season, but that was a product of the improvement he made in his overall approach.
Saltalamacchia, a switch-hitter, remains a much better hitter from the left side, which is why Boston remains such a good fit for him. Ross is back for another season, and his strength offensively is against lefties. Saltalamacchia is also just 28 years old.
"I've said it all year long. This is a great place to play," Saltalamacchia said the day of the World Series parade. "It's been a home for me for the past three or four years, and things are going to work out the way they're going to work out. We're just going to have to kind of sit and wait and see."
While the Red Sox have many alternatives behind the plate, retaining Saltalamacchia could be the best solution, particularly considering the comfort he has gained with the pitching staff.
But it takes two sides to make a deal, and general manager Ben Cherington will have to exhaust all avenues to see what is best for the club.
"There's a bunch of teams that seemingly have a need or a potential need, and there are a bunch of guys out there," Cherington said last week at the GM Meetings. "I think it will be one of the more interesting positions to watch, because there's likely to be activity there, and potentially some trades, too, not just free agency. We'll see. It's obviously a position that we may want to look to do something with. We're going to keep talking about all the available options and see what comes our way."
If keeping Saltalamacchia for stability is Plan A, the most enticing Plan B is clearly Brian McCann, the best hitting catcher on the market.
McCann turns 30 in February and has a big bat from the left side. He is a seven-time All-Star, including last season, when he belted 20 homers in 356 at-bats. And McCann already has a close friendship with Ross from their time together in Atlanta, which would help his transition in learning the tendencies of Boston's pitching staff, not to mention getting a handle on the American League.
But here's the rub. McCann is likely to cost a lot of money, perhaps more than the Red Sox want to spend. His best chance at landing in Boston is probably if he settles for a shorter-term deal that would still have a high annual average value. That was the strategy the Sox utilized last winter in signing Shane Victorino for three years at $39 million.
However, given the lack of offense at the catching position, McCann could be a tougher get.
The Red Sox feel good about their catching depth in the Minors, so it's possible they could look for a bridge situation to tide them over until Cristian Vazquez or Blake Swihart is ready.
One person who could fit nicely in that situation is free agent A.J. Pierzynski, who is certainly a veteran presence with a championship pedigree. He also has a confident personality, and wouldn't shy away from playing in Boston.
David Ortiz has history with Pierzynski from their days with the Twins and would likely vouch for him.
Though he's 36, Pierzynski is coming off a solid offensive season in which he hit .272 with 17 homers and 70 RBIs. The one thing that makes Pierzynski less than an ideal fit with Boston is his plate approach, which has never been a very patient one. Pierzynski walked just 11 times for the Rangers last season.
Pierzynski isn't the defender he once was, but pitchers generally like throwing to him.
Way back in 2004, the Red Sox actually considered drafting Kurt Suzuki instead of Dustin Pedroia. They are happy with the decision they made, as Pedroia has become a perennial All-Star and Suzuki never quite lived up to what the A's hoped.
Suzuki had one good year offensively in 2009, but he hasn't had an OPS above .700 since then. However, his defense remains strong and his price tag would probably be far lower than some of the other catchers on the market. Suzuki is 30 years old.
Another short-term option the Sox might consider is John Buck. The 33-year-old smacked 15 homers for the Mets in 2013 before being dealt to the Pirates at the end of the season. However, Buck is a .234 career hitter with a .301 OBP. Defensively, he is above average, both in terms of fielding and throwing.
Those are just some options. Others, as Cherington suggested, could present themselves on the trade market.
And if the Red Sox wind up coming back with the Saltalamacchia-Ross combo, they'd hardly complain about that either.