FORT MYERS, Fla. — It was an odd dance that followed the 2008 season. Jason Varitek was a free agent, but the Red Sox seemed in no particular hurry to re-sign him following a career-worst offensive season. Yet there were few apparent catching alternatives for the Sox, as the team’s minor league options were considered unready to assume full-time duties in the majors, and the pickings were slim among the rest of the free agent catching crop.
And so, two sides with no real alternatives to a reunion (Varitek became all but guaranteed to return to the Sox once the club offered him arbitration) moved incredibly slowly to what, in retrospect, seemed an inevitable outcome. The Sox explored trade options (Miguel Montero, Kelly Shoppach, Jarrod Saltalamacchia), but one team source recalled that there was never a definitive backup plan to bringing back Varitek. Though the process dragged into February of 2009, Varitek returned to the Sox on a two-year, $8 million deal.
Now, it is fair to wonder whether history will repeat itself following the coming season. This time, both slated everyday catcher Victor Martinez and backup Varitek are due to reach free agency following the 2010 campaign. And the question remains: Will the Sox have any alternatives should both of those players leave?
FREE AGENT ALTERNATIVES
Presuming that superstar Joe Mauer re-signs with the Twins, the group of free agent alternatives to Martinez — presuming that a team determines that he represents a legitimate everyday catching option for 2011 and beyond — is unimpressive.
A.J. Pierzynski is arguably the best of the class. He’ll turn 34 on Dec. 31, nearing the age of steep decline for most catchers. He maintained his solid offensive production (.300/.331/.425/.755) in 2009, and could position himself as a solid option to Mauer and Martinez if he avoids a precipitous decline this coming year, despite a mixed reputation.
Beyond Pierzynski, Martinez, Mauer and Varitek, Gerald Laird was the only other catcher who had an everyday role in 2009 and will be a free agent following the 2010 season. Laird is known for above-average defense, but his offense (.225/.306/.320/.626) was no better than Varitek’s (.209/.313/.390/.703) last season.
The rest of the class features part-timers such as Ramon Hernandez, Gregg Zaun, Yorvit Torrealaba and John Buck. The second coming of Yogi Berra isn’t exactly likely to be on the market.
But, in a perfect world, the Sox would undoubtedly prefer to look internally to a replacement catcher should both Martinez and Varitek depart. The question remains whether the team has anyone in its system who could emerge for such a role.
Undoubtedly, the Sox are in a better place now than they were prior to the 2009 season with regards to catching in the system. The team had several catchers take noteworthy developmental steps last season. For a team whose inability to develop catching has represented, at times, an Achilles heel, it was a meaningful development.
“We had a pretty good year as far as the development of our young catchers. A lot of those guys took a step forward and were closer to helping us than when the year started,” said Assistant GM Ben Cherington. “We feel like we’re in good shape as far as catching depth in the organization. We feel good that we have guys at the upper levels who are capable of coming up and playing [should either Varitek or Martinez get injured].”
There are some evaluators who look at the Sox’ catching and still question whether there is a legitimate everyday option available in the minors. But Cherington argues that such skepticism is, in some ways, the byproduct of unreasonable expectations.
The average American League catcher hit .254 with a .316 OBP, .408 slugging mark and .724 OPS in 2009. If a backstop can combine that sort of modest offensive performance with average to above average defense behind the plate, then while you may not have the next Mauer, the overall package would be that of a solid to above average catcher.
There is no guarantee that the Sox feature such a player right now. Even so, the team is increasingly optimistic that at least one catcher – and perhaps more than that – could emerge as a starting option.
“If you look at who the everyday catchers are today in the big leagues,” said Cherington, “a lot of them don’t look that different from a lot of the guys we have in the system right now. There seems to be this standard for catchers, there’s a bar set relatively high by the industry, because there’s so much importance placed on the position, for good reason. …
“The reality is that five years from now, there’s going to be 30 primary catchers in the big leagues. A lot of those guys will have been in the minor leagues in 2009 and 2010. My bet is a couple of them will have been in our organization.”
In particular, the organization expresses confidence that four catchers in the system (with varying degrees of likelihood) could emerge as a starting option in the majors:
More than eight years after signing with the Red Sox as a 35th round draft-and-follow in 2001, Dusty Brown finally reached the majors. His September call-up proved memorable, as he hit a homer and even pitched an inning (allowing one run).
Brown’s power disappeared in the minors in 2009, as he hit just two homers and slugged .329. But he continued to show good on-base skills (.345 OBP), but he received high marks for his work behind the plate in Pawtucket.
Rob Leary, who mentored the organization’s catchers while serving as minor league field instructor over the past eight years (prior to a promotion to big league assistant coach for 2010), said that Brown “without a doubt” has the defensive skills of a big league catcher.
“He’s a complete catcher now. A lot of it’s experience, and some of it is the fundamental work he’s done and the work he’s done,” said Leary. “He’s done a really good job over the course of his career of getting a little bit better in every facet of the game.”
Brown is rarely described as a big league catcher of the future. Nonetheless, his solid offensive performance suggests a solid chance of at least a backup role in the majors, with the possibility of something greater.
Though he suggests that he is impatient by nature, Brown suggests that he has learned to bide his time while waiting for an opportunity. If either Varitek or Martinez were injured, he would appear the most likely call-up option given that he has now shown an ability to successfully manage a pitching staff and offer some offensive production in Triple A.
“This game, especially this situation that I’ve been in, has kind of forced me to be [patient]. I’m pretty impatient usually,” said Brown. “I think [the Sox] feel that I’m a big league ready player now. I just have to wait for my time. It is what it is. Keep playing well so when the time comes when they need somebody, I’m still the guy. I don’t want to get passed up by anybody else.
“I think it’s to the point now where they know what I can do and I just need to keep doing it, not make a bad impression and take away from what I’ve done.”
Brown is described as being a good handler of pitchers with good footwork that allows him to block well and makes him a solid catch-and-throw option who can limit an opponent’s running game. (He threw out 31 percent of would-be base stealers for Pawtucket.)
Wagner, 25, suffered a dreadful 2008 season in Double-A Portland, at least based on his offensive numbers. Though he made strides behind the plate, he hit .219/.304/.363/.666.
Yet his numbers showed a major improvement upon his return to Portland for the start of 2009. Wagner hit .301/.410/.477/.887 for the Sea Dogs and threw out an outrageous 62 percent (18 of 29) would-be base stealers. He found a balance between his offense and defense, with impressive results.
“Going through  in Double A, I had a better idea what to expect,” said Wagner. “Year 1, I was focused just on catching. I was happy with where that was, but I was ready to work on that fine balance of separating catching and hitting.”
Wagner earned a mid-year promotion to Pawtucket. There, his offense once again suffered (.214/.268/.351/.619), but he received high marks for his handling of the pitching staff. He has a tremendously quick release on throws to second, resulting in good numbers in controlling the opposition’s running game. If his plate discipline and pitch recognition allow him to hit enough, he should be ready for a big-league backup role by 2011, with at least some shot at a future starting role in the majors.
Perhaps more than any other position, catchers are expected to struggle offensively as they move up the minor league ranks. The demands of learning a new pitching staff are almost expected to come at the expense of what they do with the bat, making struggles along the lines of what Wagner experienced in Portland in 2008 and Pawtucket in 2009 anything but atypical.
Thus it came as somewhat eye-opening that Luis Exposito, who turned 23 in January, not only maintained his offensive performance after a mid-year promotion to Portland but actually improved it.
Exposito was a 31st round draft-and-follow selection out of high school in 2005. He enrolled in junior college, performed extremely well and signed with the Sox for $150,000. The Sox believed when they signed Exposito that he would have gone in the top handful of rounds had he entered the 2006 draft, so while he arrived without much fanfare, the organization still considered him a relatively high-ceiling talent.
He is viewed as a high-energy player who has an aggressive approach at the plate. Yet to this point in his minor-league career, he has had consistently solid production as a hitter. In 2008, he hit .293/.330/.508/.838 at two levels of A-ball. Last year, he hit .271/.329/.424/.759 with High A Salem of the Carolina League before delivering a .337/.371/.489/.860 line in a year-ending performance in Double A. He then hit .314/.364/.431/.795 in the Arizona Fall League.
His raw power is significant. Farm director Mike Hazen suggested that Exposito may have the most raw power of any right-handed hitter in the system. His aggressiveness may hinder his ability to translate that skill into games, but that hasn’t been the case over the course of the last two impressive seasons.
“We like the skills and we like the person. He’s done everything that he can year by year to make himself a better player,” said Leary. “I wouldn’t say the expectations have changed, but at a certain point, it’s about performance.
“At one point, you’ve got all the skills but now you’ve got to go out and play. And he did. He took that next challenge, was promoted and did a really nice job in Portland offensively and defensively. We’re real happy with where he’s at right now, and we’ll see where it goes this year.”
Exposito was actually drafted on the strength of his defense. Though his massive frame (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) might engender some skepticism about his ability to catch, team officials say that his footwork allows him to move as well as smaller catchers behind the dish, and he is, of course, an invitingly large target for pitchers.
He has a strong arm, though he sometimes rushes throws, thus lowering his accuracy. Even so, the overall package of tools is intriguing. Among the Sox catchers in the upper levels, his offensive ceiling would appear to be the highest of anyone (though his plate approach also lends itself to inconsistency).
Though the offensive numbers were what stood out, Exposito said that it was in the mental side of the game – especially his work with pitchers – that he made the most progress.
“I think it was mostly mental, adjusting to the increase of scouting there is in Double A, how you have to work with the pitchers. They emphasize that part of the game, where you read swings and make adjustments [as a catcher],” said Exposito.
Exposito also said that, thanks to his work with Leary, his footwork and receiving improved in 2009. He should return to Portland to start the year. Even if he continues his aggressive development schedule, however, a role in the majors before the middle of 2011 would come as something of a surprise.
Tim Federowicz is not in big-league camp. Even so, he remains very much part of the conversation about the future shape of the big-league squad.
Team officials rave about his leadership ability and defense. He picked off a ridiculous number of runners in 2009, and did a solid job of controlling the running game of opponents.
It came as little surprise that Federowicz, 22, received high marks for his work behind the plate. The 2008 seventh-round selection was known as a great defensive catcher in college. But it was his offense that offered the Sox a pleasant surprise in 2009, and convinced some that he is no worse than a good backup in the future, with a chance to be an everyday catcher as soon as 2012.
Federowicz hit .345/.393/.562/.955 with 10 homers in 55 games after starting the year for Single A Greenville. Those massive numbers led to a late-June promotion to High A Salem.
There, Federowicz and Exposito elevated the team’s Scrabble score but suffered from diminished production while taken out of the rhythm of everyday catching duties. Federowicz, in particular, slumped while hitting .075/.121/.094/.225 in July, a period when he had trouble staying on pitches away.
But he rebounded down the stretch, hitting .296/.310/.454/.764 in August and September. He performance was enough to give grounds for optimism about what his future might hold if he can sustain his offense as he moves up the ladder.
“I think there was always a little bit of doubt about whether I’d be able to hit at this level,” Federowicz said last summer. “Hopefully I’m changing minds now.”
WHAT THAT MEANS IN 2011
The Sox feel that the state of catching in their system has improved steadily to the point where the team features solid options going forward. Even so, it remains to be seen who, if anyone, from the current crop will emerge as an everyday catcher in the majors. As significantly, it remains an open question whether anyone in the system would be ready for such a role in 2011, should the Sox lose Varitek and Martinez in free agency.
That is not to disparage the class of Sox catchers. Nonetheless, because of the demands on the position, the typical career trajectory for a catcher is to experience some sort of apprenticeship at the major-league level before graduating to everyday responsibilities.
“There’s always going to be an adjustment. For the catchers, it’s different than for the shortstops and outfielders,” said Leary. “With the catchers, because the handling of the staff, calling pitches, working with each individual and the staff as a whole, that’s something that every catcher goes through at each level. That’s why, as we get to Double A, as the catchers get to Double A, Triple A, and then the big leagues, which are another animal, there’s more information.”
Barring something unforeseen with Martinez or Varitek, that period of transition seems unlikely to occur for any of the Sox’ catchers in 2010. Even so, while it would be overly misleading to suggest that the club features a player who would be ready to assume the role of everyday catcher in 2011, the team’s outlook at the position is more promising than it has been in some time.
“It remains to be seen when and if any of those guys develop into an everyday catcher for the Red Sox,” said Cherington, “but certainly they have the ability to do that.”
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