When the Detroit Tigers signed veteran catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia last December, it looked like the writing was on the wall for Bryan Holaday. With James McCann firmly installed as the starting catcher and Holaday out of minor league options, it sure looked like his days in the Tigers organization could be numbered, barring injury or other unforeseen developments. Holaday came into spring training with something to prove, and has thus far out-performed expectations.
To say that Holaday is off to a good start would be a gross understatement. He has nine hits in 17 plate appearances for a .588 average, with three home runs and nine RBI. He is arguably the hottest hitter in the major leagues at the moment. He gives the Tigers three potentially cost-effective options behind the plate.
Holaday also performed well for the Tigers as the third string catcher in 2015, hitting .281/.292/.453 in just 64 plate appearances. However, his numbers at Triple- A Toledo -- a .224 batting average in 179 plate appearances -- suggest that this smattering of major league at-bats was better than his norms. He has played over 100 games behind the plate for Detroit in his career, but he has traveled the road between Detroit and Toledo enough to use up his three options. Holaday would have to clear waivers before he could be sent back down to the minor leagues, and conventional wisdom is that he would be claimed many times over.
Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, is stepping forward to fill the role that he was signed for. He has six hits in 15 at-bats with a pair of home runs and five RBI this spring. A veteran of nine major league seasons, he can switch hit, but is a .251/.325/.447 hitter against right-handed pitching in over 1,850 career plate appearances. More to the point, he has been around the major leagues and has extensive experience behind the plate.
The Tigers only have to pay Saltalamacchia the major league minimum salary, while the Miami Marlins will pay the balance of his $7.5 million contract, which expires after the 2016 season. It is also unlikely that he would survive a waiver claim, or that he would accept a minor league assignment even if he did clear waivers. If the Tigers have to designate one of Holaday or Saltalamacchia for assignment, odds are that player is elsewhere come April 5.
James McCann does have options remaining, so he could theoretically be optioned to the minors, but don’t expect that to happen. In his rookie season with Detroit, McCann logged 425 plate appearances in 112 games while belting seven home runs. He also threw out 28 base runners without committing an error all season. While his batting stats put him in the middle of the pack among the league’s catchers, the Tigers plan on him being a mainstay in their lineup for the next several seasons. McCann is hitting .300 with a home run and an .800 OPS this spring.
Spring training statistics are fun after a long, cold winter without any baseball, especially when the offseason begins. But spring stats rarely are the reason that roster decisions are made when the players involved have significant track records in the major leagues. Hitting statistics are even less relevant for catchers, where their defensive responsibilities far outweigh most offensive contributions.
There may be a temporary opening on the roster because of Cameron Maybin's injury, but it seems unlikely that the club would use two of their four bench spots available to carry a pair of backup catchers. One might be able to stretch the imagination far enough to see Holaday filling in at third base, or maybe even a corner outfield position in a pinch, but the void created by Maybin’s injury is in center field, where a right-handed hitter to share time with Anthony Gose would be a better fit than a second backup catcher.
Tigers general manager Al Avila addressed the possibility of having three catchers on the roster.
"It's hard that you like both, and at some point a decision is going to have to be made," Avila said. "We've even kicked around where maybe we keep all three catchers. But that would be very difficult to do, so don't write that we're going to keep three catchers because at this point that would be a very hard thing to do."
The most likely scenario is that the Tigers either trade Holaday or try to sneak him through waivers. The best time to do that might be just before the season begins, when teams have made almost all of their roster decisions. In any case, the Tigers are poised to enter the 2016 season with a catching platoon that will cost them barely more than the league minimum. On a team that is top heavy with salaries, their contributions promise to be quite cost-effective at that position.