Amidst the discussion about how to handle the free-agent status of Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, one suggestion has been notably absent. No one has argued for a transition from the longtime backstop to another catcher who is currently in the organization.
It would be easy to conclude that catching represents an organizational weakness, that the Sox—whose 2008 playoff run relied heavily on depth in the minors—feature a glaring hole in their minor-league system. Some evaluators outside the organization view the situation that way.
“I look at Boston, and they don’t have a Joe Mauer sitting there. Not that anyone does,” said an A.L. scout. “Do I think the Red Sox have an everyday catcher (in the minors)? Not that I saw.
“If they want to stay where they’re at, playing for 95 wins and a world championship, someone would really have to step up once they got that opportunity.”
Of course, part of the problem with developing catchers is the standards to which they are held. Catchers like the Twins’ Mauer, Geovany Soto of the Cubs, Victor Martinez of the Indians and Brian McCann of the Braves are used as measuring sticks despite almost freakish production.
There is little indication that the Sox have such an MVP-caliber catcher in their system, a backstop whose combined offense and defense gives the club a signficant advantage over competitors. But when trying to see whether the minor-league system features someone capable of emerging as one of the top 30 catchers in baseball, someone who can develop into a major-league starter, the view is different.
From the Dominican to Triple-A, the Sox believe that they feature several players who will develop into major-league catchers in the coming seasons. The notion was reinforced during the recently concluded Fall Instructional League season in Fort Myers.
“(Pitching coordinator) Ralph Treuel (a coach for the Sox since 1999) came to me one day,” said minor-league field coordinator and catching instructor Rob Leary. “He said, ‘Lear, this is the first time since I’ve been with the Red Sox that I’ve felt that catching is a strength of this camp.’”
Even so, while Leary and farm director Mike Hazen note the progress that has been made, the team acknowledges that it lacks someone ready to step in as a big-league starter. Should Varitek leave, the Sox would not have an heir apparent available for the 2009 season.
“Obviously, we’re not where we need to be, especially at the upper levels, but we’re getting there,” said Hazen. “When you’re talking about replacing Jason Varitek, who is an experienced major-league catcher, it’s a little more challenging to consider thrusting a young guy into that spot without any experience. It’s a little bit different than the 12th man of a pitching staff.”
The issue of 2009 aside, if the team believes that it has a legitimate catcher-of-the-future in its system, it will have significant repercussions for its approach to this offseason. The team would merely need a one- or two-year bridge to the future—whether Varitek or another veteran—before turning over the job to an internal candidate.
Members of the organization maintain that internal options might exist for such a scenario to take place.
“I don’t think at this point that any of our guys within are ready to take over for Jason,” said Leary. “But I do think we have multiple catchers who could be frontline catchers on the horizon.”
If so, the need for the Sox to part with a major prospect package (perhaps headed by Clay Buchholz or Justin Masterson) to acquire a long-term catching solution would be diminished.
Here, then, is a look at some of the catching candidates in the Red Sox system (organized by 2008 minor-league level):
Dusty Brown (26 years old; .290 average, .377 OBP, .471 slugging, 12 HR, 55 RBI, 297 ABs; in the Dominican Winter League through Nov. 10: .281/.397/.359, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 64 ABs)
George Kottaras (25 years old; .243/.348/.456, 22 HR, 65 RBI, 395 ABs)
The PawSox featured a straight timeshare between Dusty Brown and George Kottaras this year. Each was behind the plate for 70 games. Brown was with the major-league team as part of the expanded traveling roster to Japan at the beginning of the year, while Kottaras received a September call-up to the majors.
The two demonstrated different strengths that ultimately made it difficult to identify one as better than the other in 2008.
“There was never a tremendous separation between the two of them,” said Hazen, “and there probably still isn’t today.”
The 25-year-old Kottaras experienced across-the-board improvement while repeating Triple-A in 2008. His offensive numbers—most notably, his homerun total, which led International League catchers—improved in every category.
While he was viewed as a defensive question mark at the time of his acquisition from the Padres in late-2006 (and two A.L. scouts continue to view him in that fashion), Kottaras has made strides behind the plate. He is now considered a solid pitch receiver, but he threw out just 18.8 percent of would-be base stealers.
Brown, meanwhile, had the second highest OBP and the top OPS among catchers in the International League. He also features a very strong arm, and gunned down 27 percent of attempted base stealers this year.
Brown is currently playing in the Dominican Winter League, where he is receiving strong reviews for both his hitting and defense. Of all the catchers in the system, several talent evaluators viewed him as the most advanced, with the greatest chance of becoming a major-league backup for the Sox in 2009.
One X-factor for Kottaras is that he is now out of options. He will compete for a big-league job in spring training, but if he does not stick on the roster, he will be subject to waivers. Given that he is a catcher who pounded 22 homers in 2008, it seems unlikely that the Sox could sneak him past the other 29 clubs.
Mark Wagner (24 years old: .219 average, .304 OBP, .363 slugging, 10 HR, 48 RBI; in the Arizona Fall League through Nov. 10: .318/.388/.500, 2, 6)
Mark Wagner’s numbers took a major hit in 2008 as he went from the jet streams of Single-A Lancaster to Double-A Portland. After hitting .301/.386/.456 with low-A Greenville in 2006 and .318/.406/.533 with Lancaster last year, he plummeted.
Yet in some respects, 2008 was a great success for Wagner.
“I think (Wagner) had a fantastic year,” said Leary. “If you take him from mid-February to today, he had a great year of growth both on and off the field.”
The move from Single-A to Double-A is often a separator for catchers. Defensively, they must prove that they can go from simply following a game-calling blueprint based on their pitchers’ strengths to a more complex undertaking that factors in hitters’ weaknesses.
The challenge that catchers face as they reach the upper levels is simply different than the one that most of the peers endure. It is a common occurrence for catchers to spend multiple years in Double-A or Triple-A
“It’s almost like when a football player has to learn another playbook. Is the playbook five pages long or 100?” Hazen said. “The playbook gets thicker as they move up.”
“It’s the most difficult position to play in baseball. There’s a reason for it. It’s why it takes so long for these guys to develop,” Hazen continued. “The Joe Mauers are the Joe Mauers. Those guys separate themselves at birth, probably.
“Below that, there’s a reason why a lot of guys break into the big leagues as catchers at 25, 26, 27, 28, when you can see 21-year-old position players in the big leagues any day of the week. They’re not catchers.”
In that light, Wagner received universally positive reviews for working with a pitching staff that included most of the organization’s top pitching prospects, including Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Michael Bowden and Daniel Bard.
He is viewed as an extremely solid if unspectacular defensive catcher. While he does not have a cannon of an arm, his quick release allowed him to throw out 34 of 82 (41 percent) would-be base stealers this year.
As for his offense, the Sox believe that Wagner’s year-ending numbers were somewhat misleading.
“The sexy numbers, the numbers that people see on TV when the hitter comes to the plate, those certainly weren’t what we had wished for or what Mark had wished for,” said Leary. “He had a much better year offensively than the numbers indicate.”
Wagner had an extremely poor average on balls in play that suggested bad luck, making him a likely candidate for a rebound in 2009. Numbers aside, he is a line-drive hitter who shows good command of the strike zone and makes regular, solid contact.
The 24-year-old doesn’t feature a single tool that jumps off the charts, but his balanced offensive and defensive skills suggest a likelihood of a solid major-league career. Of all the catchers in the Sox system, the maturity of his overall game makes him the most likely bet to emerge as a big-league starter.
Wagner will compete for a job in Triple-A in spring training this year, though a return engagement in Double-A is not out of the question. The 2009 season will go a long way in determining his prospect status.
His strong performance thus far in the Arizona Fall League, albeit in a limited number of games, is certainly a positive indicator. With a solid year, he could be on the radar for a major-league role in 2010.
Luis Exposito (21 years old: Single-A Greenville - .283/.328/.508, 11 HR, 31 RBI; Single-A Lancaster - .301/.331/.509, 10, 37)
More than one talent evaluator referred to Exposito as the “wild card” among catchers in the Red Sox system. He may well feature the biggest ceiling of any catcher in the organization, though because he has yet to reach the upper levels, it is challenging to forecast his future.
Selected out of high school as a draft-and-follow in the 31st round of the 2005 draft, the Sox committed a low six-figure salary to sign him after a junior college season with the expectation that he would be a solid defender. His offense wasn’t a prominent part of the package.
He did little to alter that perception in 2006, and then sat out most of 2007 after being suspended. Back on the field in 2008, Exposito achieved a rather startling breakthrough.
He started the year in low-A Greenville before a mid-year promotion to Lancaster. During the two stops, he hammered 21 homers in 427 plate appearances. He was one of just a dozen minor leaguers age 21 or younger to hit that many homers in 2008.
Exposito features an above-average arm, and threw out 28.5 percent of base stealers this year. His work behind the plate was extremely solid, and at 6-foot-3, he is a formidable presence.
“He’s got leadership ability. Pitchers like pitching to him,” said Leary. “He certainly has the skill set to move through the organization, to move through minor-league baseball and ultimately to play in the big leagues.”
That said, Exposito is viewed as being at least two or three years from the majors. In all likelihood, he will return to High-A (now in Salem, Va.) to start the year, though if he carries his 2008 success into the coming year, a promotion to Double-A would be likely.
FURTHER DOWN THE PIPELINE
Ty Weeden (21 years old – Single-A Greenville: .225/.319/.422, 8, 32)
Tim Federowicz (21 years old - Short-Season Single-A Lowell: .244/.338/.315, 1, 15)
Ryan Lavarnway (21 years old - Short-Season Single-A Lowell: .211/.317/.366, 2, 9)
Weeden was amidst a disappointing season before enduring a torn meniscus in his knee that required surgery. Still, he possesses good raw power and is considered a solid defender, so if his average ticks up, he could emerge as a sleeper.
Federowicz is an outstanding defender with tremendous makeup. Despite having spent just a few months in the Sox organization, his leadership skills quickly became obvious. There are questions about whether he can hit enough to move up the ladder.
Lavarnway led the NCAA in batting average (.467) and slugging (.873) as a sophomore, and his hitting ability as a catcher is intriguing. His defense, however, would require plenty of refinement to get him to the majors.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.