Kelly Shoppach is going back to where he started. The 31-year-old catcher agreed to terms on a one-year, $1.35 million contract with the Boston Red Sox — the organization that drafted him in the second round of the 2001 draft. With incentives, the deal could be worth $1.75 million.
Signing with the Red Sox ensures that Shoppach will remain in the American League East, where he spent the past two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays. His time with the Rays was largely disappointing: he hit .185/.285/.340 in 440 plate appearances. In the four seasons prior, he posted a .343 wOBA with the Cleveland Indians — the fifth-best mark among AL catchers with at least 800 plate appearances.
The Rays had hoped that Shoppach would be a hired gun on the right-hand side — signed with the idea that he’d destroy left-handed pitching. In that sense, he fulfilled his duties, posting a .357 wOBA against lefties during his time with the team. But during those two seasons, he produced a mere .203 wOBA against right-handed pitchers — the lowest of any player in the majors (minimum 200 PA vs. RHP). In addition to struggling against righties, Shoppach struck out in 34% of his at-bats.
Still, for all his shortcomings at the plate with the Rays, Shoppach could see a boost in offensive production simply by trading Tropicana Field for Fenway Park. While the Trop suppresses right-handed power hitters, Fenway’s Green Monster is an enticing target.
Not everything was bad during Shoppach’s tenure with the Rays. In addition to being a productive hitter against left-handers, he was effective behind the plate in 2011. Never recognized as much of a defender, Shoppach gunned down 40% of potential base stealers — and he allowed just one passed ball all season. Next year, it’ll be interesting to see if this was a true talent change, or if was an anomaly.
With Jarrod Saltalamacchia as his partner, Shoppach will once again be called upon to hit left-handed pitching. Saltalamacchia is a switch-hitter; but that appears to be in title only. In his career as a right-handed batter, he has a .268 wOBA versus lefties. Meanwhile, he has earned a much better .336 wOBA from the left side, against righties. On paper, the Shoppach-Saltalamacchia platoon should give Boston above-average offensive production from the catcher position.
The pairing of Shoppach and Saltalamacchia likely signals the end of Jason Varitek’s career with the Red Sox. Although his best days are behind him, Varitek has been a decent backup during the past two years, producing a .320 wOBA and a .216 ISO since 2010. He could look for work as a backup catcher-slash-pinch hitter, but he’ll be 40 years old in April and he might choose to retire. This also means power-hitting prospect Ryan Lavarnway will probably start the season in Pawtucket.
Shoppach’s $1.35 million contract with the Red Sox falls in line with the other contracts given this winter to part-time catchers. Within the AL East, Jeff Mathis signed a $1.5 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, and Jose Molina — the man who replaces Shoppach in Tampa Bay — will make $1.8 million ($1.5 million base plus a $300k buyout). Even if he regresses defensively, Shoppach should be worth his modest salary. He could be worth even more if he continues to hit lefties and receives added additional benefits from park factors. Even if he fails completely, the knowledge Shoppach brings about the Rays’ pitching staff could be worth that $1.35 million to Red Sox management.