Lakeland, Fla. — It was suggested to manager Brad Ausmus that the Tigers might not exactly know what they have in veteran catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Is he the guy who slugged 55 home runs with 180 RBIs over a three-year stretch with the Red Sox from 2011-2013? Or is he the guy who has struggled mightily the last two seasons, getting released from the Marlins and signing on as a backup by the Diamondbacks last season?
“I wouldn’t say he’s a complete unknown,” Ausmus said. “We know what he’s done as a catcher. His bat has been inconsistent the last couple of years, but he’s always been a power threat.”
What the Tigers are counting on him being is a left-handed power bat off the bench (though he is a switch-hitter), a dependable backup catcher, an occasional fill-in at first base and a solid, veteran presence in the clubhouse.
What they are hoping for is a resurgence, and the man they call "Salty" believes he has one in him.
“I am still just 30 years old,” said Saltalamacchia, who turns 31 in May. “There’s plenty of time left. I want to get a starting job again, one day. But here, my job is to help the guys and do what I can to be part of the process of winning.”
Saltalamacchia understands what he’s here for. He signed a one-year contract to backup James McCann. He also knows the Tigers last season had 4,800 plate appearances against right-handed pitching, and he’s one of just four left-handed bats expected to make the club.
“Whatever they need me to do,” he said. “I’m a team guy that wants to win.”
It’s been a frustrating and somewhat baffling two seasons for Saltalamacchia. He went from being a starting catcher on the Red Sox championship team in 2013, to signing a two-year, $14.49 million deal with the Marlins to being benched, designated for assignment and released one month into last season.
“I can’t really explain it,” he said. “This game is tough. It’s just the way it is. You are going to have bad years and you are going to have good years.”
Things started well enough in Florida in 2014. He had nine home runs before the end of May, but suffered a concussion and was placed on the disabled list on June 1. Nothing much went right for him after that. He only hit two homers, with just 17 extra base hits, after June 1.
He started slowly in 2015, as well, getting just two hits (one homer) and playing just nine games in the month of April before being DFA’d.
“I don’t know if it was the concussion or anything in particular, but something wasn’t right,” he said.
Until last April, Saltalamacchia had never played a backup role, and he didn’t like it at all.
“It was good for me to see what it was like,” he said. “But I’m a guy that wants to play every day. If I got an off day when I was playing every day I was pissed. I want to be out there every day.”
But the backup role wound up being a blessing for him. He signed with the Diamondbacks two days after he was released by the Marlins and backed-up Wellington Castro the rest of the season.
“I had a chance to sit back and look at it from the outside,” he said. “Slow things down, get a little rest and breathe, take a breath. I was like, ‘You’ve been doing this your whole career. Ain’t nothing changed.’”
He spent a lot of time working on his swing with coach Mark Grace — time he wouldn’t have had if he was starting. He made a few adjustments and wound up hitting .251, with an .805 OPS with eight homers and 23 RBIs in 70 games.
“Being in that role, backing up and not playing every day, it helped me slow things down and get back to where I know I can be,” he said. “My numbers went up. I think I am where I need to be.”
If there are any lingering mental scars from a two-year struggle, they don’t show.
“In this game you have to have a short memory,” he said. “I look back and it’s just a chapter in my book that I learned from. But I don’t live in the past or hold any grudges. Just move on to where I am at now.”
Saltalamacchia over the years used spring training to get into shape. He didn’t feel he had that luxury with the Tigers. He’s been at Tigertown a full week ahead of Thursday’s report day and he showed up lean and in shape.
“I decided to come in a little lighter,” he said. “You tend to lose weight in spring training so I never wanted to do come in lighter in the past. But this year, I thought it might be helpful to do that.
“I need to be ready to go on Day One.”