The Red Sox’ catching situation is starting to be perceived as if it’s something of a crisis. It’s not terribly difficult to understand why.
The Sox committed early in the offseason to having Jarrod Saltalamacchia assume primary responsibility for the stewardship of the pitching staff, with Jason Varitek returning as a backup. Saltalamacchia was viewed as a catcher with solid offensive and defensive potential that had yet to be unlocked. Varitek was viewed as the perfect mentor, capable of offering unmatched knowledge of the pitching staff and able to deliver occasional right-handed thump.
Thus far, however, both catchers have had their issues. Saltalamacchia’s have been somewhat extreme in all phases of the game. He is hitting .194 with a .256 OBP and .479 OPS, having struck out in one of every three plate appearances.
His throwing to bases has become an even bigger issue, as he is missing the bag by wide margins, rendering the team vulnerable to teams that run like crazy (14 steals against him). The Sox, meanwhile, have opened the year with several teams (most notably the Rays, Blue Jays and Angles) that love to exploit such vulnerability.
Perhaps in part because their focus has been redirected to shutting down the running game, Sox pitchers have struggled with Saltalamacchia behind the plate. The team has a 7.14 ERA when he is the catcher. The Sox are 2-9 in games he’s started.
That he has encountered such a challenging start has come as something of a surprise. The team was thrilled with Saltalamacchia’s work behind the plate in spring training, feeling that he had gained the trust of the staff and had exhibited the necessary leadership qualities to handle the starting job. Thus, it was somewhat surprising to hear manager Terry Francona acknowledge that Saltalamacchia is “trying to earn those stripes” as a trusted receiver along the lines of Varitek.
The Sox captain, meanwhile, has had his own set of struggles in controlling the running game in recent years, though this year, opponents are 6-of-8 with him behind the plate in stolen base attempts. At the plate, Varitek has appeared, in the words of manager Terry Francona, “sluggish.”
The 39-year-old is 1-for-23 with nine strikeouts in 26 plate appearances. He has yet to drive in or score a run this year. However, the pitching staff has been terrific with him behind the plate, forging a 2.35 ERA and going 5-2.
“The saving grace in that is that if we’re shaking hands after the game, he did enough,” Francona told reporters in Anaheim on Thursday. “But especially right-handed, [the hitting] will come.”
While Varitek began the year in the role of a backup, it has been something of a timeshare of late. After starting just one of the Sox’ first seven games of the season, the captain has been in the lineup in six of the team’s last 11 contests, and four of their last six.
Francona admits to struggling with the question of how frequently to use the veteran. All parties around the Sox seemed to agree in 2010 – prior to a broken foot that derailed a promising start – that Varitek’s productivity had been increased by less playing time. Now, the Sox are caught between their desire to have him work with the pitching staff and their concern for jeopardizing his health or effectiveness.
“That’s something that we need to think about it,” Francona told reporters. “[But] again, he’s not 70. I don’t want to run him into the ground here. He works hard at being in good shape. … I just want to make sure we do the right thing.”
It is worth noting that there are just 11 instances in baseball history of catchers age 39 or over appearing in 80 or more games, though Carlton Fisk (four) and Bob Boone (three) account for seven of those seasons. Varitek is not at an age when catchers can typically handle a regular workload.
Yet focusing on that fact seems somewhat to miss the point. When a team feels it is walking a tightrope based on its desire to insert a 39-year-old who is hitting .043 into the lineup, then clearly something unusual is afoot.
Even so, the idea that the Sox are amidst a catching crisis might be somewhat exaggerated. The fact that the team’s starters now have a dazzling 1.62 ERA over their last six games (with Varitek behind the plate for four games), the club hopes, is an indication that the team’s catching situation may be manageable.
Of course, that outlook may be driven at least in part by wishful thinking, since the alternatives are suspect.
At this young stage of the season, few teams have surpluses of available quality catching options, and those who do are unlikely to deal a player capable of being a legitimate starting catcher in the majors for anything short of a monumental return.
Bengie Molina, who caught 118 games last year for the two teams that ended up facing each other in the World Series (Rangers and Giants) is sitting at home in a state of semi-retirement, but he is reportedly open to returning to the game for the right opportunity. Still, the 36-year-old hit .249 with a .623 OPS last year.
And what of the Sox’ internal candidates? The team would consider any of four upper levels catchers if there were a need to change the catching mix: Triple-A catchers Luis Exposito and Mike McKenry and Double-A signal callers Ryan Lavarnway and Tim Federowicz.
Exposito (hitting .241 with a .678 OPS) and McKenry (.105, .425) are both on the 40-man roster, which could give them an apparent advantage, as could their comparably greater amount of seasoning.
The 24-year-old Exposito, in particular, has now had two straight spring trainings during which to work with the Sox staff; McKenry, 26, who came to the Sox from the Rockies in a trade at the end of spring training, has never worked with the current members of the Sox rotation.
McKenry is regarded as a solid defender and good thrower with a little bit of pop at the plate. Exposito has solid across-the-board tools: Significant right-handed raw power, growing plate discipline and a strong if erratic throwing arm. Most talent evaluators agree that he has a big league future in some capacity, though it remains to be seen whether his skills can be refined to the point of exceeding the projection of a backup. As their assignment to Triple-A would suggest, they are viewed as the two most advanced catchers in the Sox' system.
Federowicz, 23, is off to a terrific offensive start with Double-A Portland. He is hitting .341 with a .375 OBP, .523 slugging mark and .898 OPS with a pair of homers in 11 games. He has received raves throughout his amateur and pro career for his work behind the plate, which is viewed as being up to snuff for a big league starting catcher; offense will dictate how viable he is for such a role. Yet while he is enjoying a nice first couple weeks of the minor league season, he struggled in 2010 in High-A Salem, hitting just .253/.324/.371/.695.
The 23-year-old Lavarnway, meanwhile, is off to a slow start at the plate (.196/.245/.283/.528), though that is hardly concerning for the Sox given the small sample size and Lavarnway’s track record as one of the top offensive performers in the system over the prior two years, during which he led all Sox minor leaguers with 43 homers. Lavarnway has made defensive strides since the Sox drafted him in 2008, but he continues to be viewed as a work-in-progress defensively.
Of those four catchers, Federowicz is the most advanced defensively, while Lavarnway is the top offensive prospect. That said, with both in Double-A, they would be imperfect options.
Catching is viewed as a uniquely demanding position for which the longest possible apprenticeship is desirable; in an ideal world, the Sox would prefer to be able to give a catcher a backup role at the big league level before graduating him to starting. Failing that, significant Triple-A experience would be desirable.
The Sox have tabbed both position players and pitchers in Double-A Portland for call-ups before, but catching is viewed as something of a different animal. Sometimes necessity dictates a more accelerated course than would be ideal, but it is worth noting that the Sox resisted the idea of promoting Exposito from Double-A last year when both Victor Martinez and Varitek went on the disabled list.
In terms of whether a move might be made, sources suggest that nothing is imminent. For obvious reasons, the team would prefer to ride out the current situation with Saltalamacchia and Varitek, hoping that the recent strong work of the pitching staff (a key to the team’s five wins in its last six games) will continue, and that the offense from the position – which ranks last among all major league teams in average (.136) and OPS (.380) – will improve.
But if the big league catching situation should remain unsettled, the Sox will end up in a fairly uncomfortable position, choosing from a menu of imperfect options. That such a specter looms over the club just three weeks into the season represents an unexpected – and unwanted – turn of events.