The Present and Future of Red Sox Catching

Over the past week, the Red Sox have moved forward with their plans for 2010 and beyond. Just before the deadline, the Red Sox picked up their option on Victor Martinez and declined their option on long-time catcher and team captain Jason Varitek. However, Varitek responded and exercised his player option to stay with the Red Sox, presumably understanding he will be the backup catcher. Last year’s backup catcher, George Kottaras, was released on Wednesday.

The Catch-33

The last two seasons have been the worst of Jason Varitek’s career. His batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage have reach or neared career lows including a dreadful .157/.250/.239 line over the second half of 2009. By comparison, David Ortiz’s May was still a little more productive than Varitek’s August/September/October.

Month Jason Varitek David Ortiz
April .250/.348/.533/.881 .230/.290/.333/.623
May .231/.311/.513/.824 .143/.278/.242/.520
June .234/.359/.391/.750 .320/.409/.653/1.062
July .231/.367/.369/.736 .247/.306/.539/.845
August .135/.233/.250/.483 .222/.330/.495/.825
September/October* .133/.204/.178/.382 .280/.381/.530/.911

*Regular season only

Varitek had clubbed ten home runs by the end of May but hit just four over the rest of the season. Unfortunately, as the power surge ended, The Captain’s season began to fall off as well. If the grueling life of a catcher has caught up to Varitek, a backup job, if he is amenable to it, could allow the Red Sox to take advantage of what he has left.

As a right handed hitter facing left handed pitchers, Varitek still hit .231/.336/.471/.807. Limiting Varitek to fewer at-bats and only playing to his platoon advantage might allow Jason to end his career with the Red Sox on a better note than he ended the 2009 season. David Ortiz hit just .213/.315/.388/.703 against left handed pitchers this year so an arrangement where Varitek sees his time against lefties could get the most out of the lineup. Francona usually prefers not to have both of his catchers in the game, but a lineup including Martinez at first, Youkilis at third, Varitek catching and Lowell as DH could provide enough punch and rest to keep everyone effective.

Home on the Rangers?

At this time last year, aside from Mark Teixeira talk, the buzz in Boston was all about the Texas Rangers’ surplus of catchers.  Gerald Liard, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, and Max Ramirez were all available. Buchholtz and/or Bowden were rumored as pieces to be moved in acquiring the heir to Jason Varitek.

Instead, Varitek was re-signed and Victor Martinez was acquired at the trading deadline. While both Martinez and the Red Sox have mentioned their interest in a long-term deal, Martinez is only under contract through the 2010 season.

Down on the Farm?

Entering 2009, Baseball America called Luis Exposito as the 15th best prospect in the Red Sox farm system, and the most likely internal replacement for Varitek.  Fellow backstop Mark Wagner was ranked 30th.

Luis Exposito ‘09 .287/.339/.439/.788
Mark Wagner ‘09 .257/.343/.414/.756

 

Exposito spent his 2009 between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland while Wagner spent his season split between Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. Wagner is considered the better defensive catcher, with a very strong arm, and Exposito has developed better than expected offensively.  Although neither is ready to take over in the majors, one of them could get a look this year should a need arise.

Mauer Power

In 2009 Joe Mauer lead the American League in batting average (.365), on base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.587) with a 1.031 OPS. He is the likely American League MVP. Mauer took home his third batting title, just the third catcher in history to win the award three times.

As a free agent after the 2010 season, Mauer is expected to sign a record-setting deal. While he is open to staying with the Twins, it remains to be seen if the Minnesota can convince him to take a lesser deal to win with his home team. Would the Red Sox get involved if he reaches free agency? Maybe.

In six seasons, Mauer has a career .327 batting average. Mauer will make $12.5 million in 2010, the final year of his back-loaded four-year $33 million contract. FanGraphs valued his 2009 season at $36.8 million and while these player salary calculations are not an exact science, the point remains: Mauer is very good and he will be very expensive. The Red Sox were ready to break their rules and give a long deal to Teixeira last winter and they were prepared to take on A-Rod in 2003. It all depends on if the Red Sox view Mauer as a long-term player to build a franchise around.

Missing Nomar: The Red Sox Shortstop Search Continues

Fourteen players have started at shortstop since the beginning of the 2004 season: Nomar Garciaparra, Pokey Reese, Cesar Crespo, Ricky Gutierrez, Mark Bellhorn, Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Royce Clayton, Alex Cora, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Dustin Pedroia, Jed Lowrie and Nick Green. Only Gonzalez, Cora, Lugo and Renteria made more than 100 starts at the position in a Red Sox uniform.Derek Jeter started 907 of 972 games for the New York Yankees over this time period.

In his six years before the trade, Nomar started 871 of 972 games with the Red Sox. See the problem here?

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Red Sox three most prominent shortstop acquisitions over the last six seasons were hailed with great expectations: Orlando Cabrera, the Expos player Theo had been coveting; Edgar Renteria, the apparent best free agent shortstop in 2004; and Julio Lugo, the Tampa Bay Devil Ray who fell apart with the Dodgers.

  Total With Boston Home Away
Orlando Cabrera .294/.320/.465/.785 .266/.298/.376/.674 .319/.341/.546/.887
Edgar Renteria .276/.327/.385/.721 .266/.325/.382/.707 .285/.345/.389/.733
Julio Lugo .251/.319/.346/.664 .286/.350/.395/.745 .190/.241/.306/.547

During his time with the Red Sox, Cabrera was a machine away from Fenway Park. He hit that amazing ball off the top of the scoreboard and played the best defense the Red Sox had seen in years, but didn’t have what the Red Sox were looking for as (at that time) the bridge to Hanley Ramirez.

Looking back at the numbers, it is almost puzzling how quickly “Rent-a-Wreck” was moved out of town. However, Edgar did have his problems defensively and was promptly moved back to the National League.  For all the grief he received, Renteria could have played much worse before he deserved all of it.

Julio Lugo’s home and away splits above are from the 2007 season, his only full season as the starting shortstop. In 2008, his splits are similar to 2007 but in 2009, in limited at bats with the Red Sox, the numbers were reversed; struggling at home (.205/.225/.2359/.584) while thriving on the road (.329/.415/.371/.786). Overall, being acquired as an offense-first shortstop who had twice clubbed 15 home runs and had not posted an on-base percentage lower than .322 or slugging less than .372 in any full season, Lugo was a bust.

Bargain Basement Find

When the Red Sox signed Alex Gonzalez in 2006, both the team and the player were desperate. In a fantastic deal for the Sox, Gonzalez dazzled Red Sox Nation with his defense. And more amazingly, he didn’t stack up that poorly to the high-profile guys. While 2009 was certainly a limited sample size, just 44 games, the Red Sox seem to have found another player who can succeed in Fenway Park, under the Boston media microscope, or some combination of the two.

  Total With Boston Home Away
Alex Gonzalez ‘06 .255/.299/.2397/.695 .279/.306/.419/.725 .234/.293/.378/.671
Alex Gonzalez ‘09 .284/.316/.453/.769 .306/.316/.453/.769 .263/.282/.342/.624

The Once King

The elephant in the room in any shortstop conversation is Hanley Ramirez.  His emergence as one of the game’s best players hasn’t quite taken people by surprise, but he certainly deserved the considerable hype surrounding him in the minors. Since arriving in Florida on the other end of the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell trade, Ramirez has been nothing but terrific:

2006 .292/.353/.480/.833
2007 .332/.386/.562/.948
2008 .301/.400/.540/.940
2009 .342/.410/.543/.954

Costello: I said I don’t give a darn! Abbott: Oh, that’s our shortstop.

Without an everyday shortstop on the roster, Theo once again will need to be creative to fill out the roster. Jed Lowrie is the guy the front office would like to see there, but injury troubles have made him a question mark. The $6 million option on Alex Gonzalez was declined, though they could bring him back on a smaller deal as a free agent. A “Hanley Returns” blockbuster trade is unlikely; even if the Marlins wanted to trade him, as the cost in prospects would be monumental and probably higher than the Red Sox would consider.

Top prospect Casey Kelly, who spent half of 2009 at short and half as a pitcher, is likely going to work on the latter full time. That leaves Jose Iglesias as the heir apparent at SS. In very limited time in the Arizona Fall League, he has ten hits in 45 at bats over 12 games. Only 19, Iglesias is more upside than anything at this point, though soxprospects describes him as having “the makings of a gold glove shortstop” with “average to above average speed” similar to Orlando Cabrera.

Red Sox Decline Option on Alex Gonzalex

On Sunday, the Red Sox declined the $6 million option they held on Alex Gonzalez for the 2010 season.  By declining his option the Red Sox find themselves without an everyday shortstop on the roster.  Is this the end of Gonzalez’s second stint with the Red Sox or is free agency a more favorable route to bring about his return?

By the Numbers

Known more for his gold glove caliber defense than for his offensive prowess, Gonzalez put up a .284/.316/.453 line in 44 games with the Red Sox, good for the second highest OPS of his career (.769), though in a very small sample.

By comparison, in his 2006 season with the Red Sox Gonzalez hit .255/.299/.397. As a career .247 hitter with a .689 OPS, Gonzalez provided more than the Red Sox could have imagined this season at a position where they needed offensive and defensive help. This is an offensive performance Gonzalez would be hard pressed to repeat. With question marks remaining at catcher and left field as well and Julio Lugo’s salary still on the books for next year, declining the option was the right move at that price.

Wrist-ful Thinking About Lowrie?

Jed Lowrie’s career path has been significantly altered by his wrist injury.  A simple offseason recovery turned into surgery costing him almost the entire 2009 season. With concerns about Lowrie’s health, it makes perfect sense to bring Gonzalez back on a short deal.

The Red Sox signed Gonzalez to a one-year $3 million contract before the 2006 season, a season he parleyed into his three-year contract with the Reds. Only 32, Gonzalez could sign another discounted contract with the Red Sox and rebuild his value again after injuries derailed his 2008 season and limited him at the start of 2009. He would be the starter unless Lowrie outplays him. Even then, Gonzalez would likely become a utility player in the mold of Crisp and Lugo, only playing his natural position while his platoon partner (Lowrie) moves around the diamond to fill in for someone else.

Who Else Is Out There?

Marco Scutaro is the premier free agent shortstop this year, but a 34 year-old coming off a career year is unlikely to be a good investment. Miguel Tejada could provide some pop with the bat, but not the defense the Red Sox like at shortstop. Orlando Cabrera is also available, but the front office let that ship sail after 2004 and hasn’t shown any interest in him the last two years.

Quick Thoughts: Red Sox

The Red Sox probably will make a big trade; they have the prospects, they have the need, and they don’t like bidding on free agents. Ortiz, Lowell, and Beckett will all, most likely, walk away next year as Type A free agents.  If Papelbon is still on the team after 2011, he probably will too. That’s a lot of extra picks to restock the farm from an Adrian Gonzalez trade.

Peter Gammons also mentioned the (highly unlikely) possibility that Beckett is traded. Would a package like the Indians got for Cliff Lee do it? The Erik Bedard deal? They could pile up on prospects over the next couple years and even a big FA signing like Matt Holliday would only take away one of those picks. They know the Rays and O’s are lurking and the Yankees will be spending; the Red Sox won’t stand still.

Yankees Win World Series: The Empire Struck Back

Last night the New York Yankees ended their nine-year struggle to win the World Series. The Yankees also outspent every team in baseball…again.  Weighing in at just over $201 million in 2009, the Yankees outspent the Mets, who had the second highest payroll, by $52.1, or just over one season of the entire Pittsburgh Pirates roster.

Through their “drought,” the Yankees spent this way every year until last year when their bundles of cash and a frozen economy let them scoop up all three premier free agents. Baseball is broken as long as this is allowed, but since a salary cap is highly unlikely, fans have only one consolation: the big bad is back.

By winning another World Series, the baseball-watching public, not just Red Sox Nation, can see clearly again which team is the enemy. Which team they will root against no matter whom the opponent. For the Red Sox, this makes the rivalry an actual rivalry! During the 86 years the Sox suffered, the Yankees feasted. That’s closer to the Washington Generals and the Harlem Globetrotters.  Between 2000 and 2009, the Red Sox and Yankees were both among the elite of baseball.

Entering the next decade, the Red Sox and Yankees are the only teams to have won two World Series championships in the 2000s. They enter the 2010s on even footing. Forget 27 rings. Forget 86 years. Baseball has changed since 2000. On base percentage, the smart front office, and the goal of finding players who are great athletes and put up great statistics, have created a smarter, better version of America’s pastime.  It’s an arms race and we’re minutes from midnight: the next ALCS between baseball’s clearly richest team and likely its smartest.

Yankees suck! (Unless you’re a fan. Then, well, at least you picked the right sport.)

Red Sox Hot Stove: Two Bags, A Plate, and a Designated Hitter

When Theo Epstein and company make their way to the General Manager and Winter Meetings, in addition to a reunion with new Padres GM Jed Hoyer, they will be pondering the Red Sox 2010 merry-go-round at first base, third base, catcher and designated hitter.

Boston heads into the off-season with Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, Casey Kotchman, David Ortiz, George Kottaras, and likely Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek or both, to occupy four positions each game…and that is without a potential trade for Adrian Gonzalez. 

Who’s On First?

Since taking over as the Red Sox first baseman in 2006, Youkilis appeared in at least 125 games per year at first base through the 2008 season. In 2009, with the injury to Mike Lowell, acquisition of Victor Martinez, and his own short stint on the disabled list, Youkilis appeared at first base in just 78 games.

Martinez, who was coming off an injury plagued 2008 season, appeared at first base in 70 games in 2009 during his time with the Indians and Red Sox.

Casey Kotchman appeared at first base in 135 games in 2008 and 114 in 2009. He had been the starting first baseman for the Angels and Braves in the 2007 and 2008 season before arriving in Boston as a bench player.

Catch(er) Of The Day

Red Sox fans have grown accustomed to Jason Varitek suiting up nearly every day to go out and handle the pitching staff, but with the Victor Martinez acquisition, the front office signaled a changing of the guard. While he appeared at catcher in 108 games in 2009, Varitek donned the mask in 131 and 125 games in 2008 and 2007. By comparison, Martinez caught in 85 games in 2009, 55 in his injury-plagued 2008 campaign, 121 in 2007 and 133 back in 2006. Both the Red Sox and Indians limited Victor’s time behind the plate this year, using him frequently at first base. Martinez’s most likely partner is Sox backup catcher George Kottaras, who hit .237/.308/.387 – for a .696 OPS compared to Martinez’s .303/.381/.480 line for an .861 OPS.  Assuming the Red Sox handle Martinez the same way next year, Kottaras could see more playing time and become a target as the weak spot in the lineup.

Room For Thirds?

Mike Lowell was a stalwart at third base in 2006 and 2007, appearing in 153 and 154 games, respectively. However, those numbers dropped to 110 and 107 for 2008 and 2009. In addition to the Victor Martinez pickup, this reduced availability paved the way for Kevin Youkilis to set a career high in games played at third base (63), his natural position.

Jed Lowrie, a likely candidate for the shortstop job, appeared at third base in 45 games during the 2008 season and four games in his injury-shortened 2009. Lowell appeared in another eight games as the designated hitter though Ortiz dominated the playing time with 138 games as the DH.

Possibilities?

The Red Sox enter the offseason with at least five players who could start at four positions, with Youkilis and Martinez capable at two each. Should Varitek return, they would have six players, all accustomed to starting. An Adrian Gonzalez acquisition could increase this number to seven.  Gonzalez has been a rock at first base, appearing in at least 155 games per season the last four years.

Depending on how Ortiz fares in 2010, Martinez could see more of his non-catching games at DH rather than first.  When you also consider that Youkilis could fill in for Bay or his replacement in left and then move to third in 2011 when Lowell’s contract expires, things can get interesting.

 

Scenario: 1 2 3 4
First Base Youkilis/Martinez Martinez Kotchman Gonzalez
Third Base Lowell Youkilis Youkilis Lowell
Catcher Martinez/Backup Backup Martinez Martinez/Backup
DH Ortiz Ortiz/Lowell Ortiz/Lowell Ortiz/Martinez
Left Field Bay/Holliday Bay/Holliday Bay/Holliday Youkilis

The first two scenarios are the most likely. A lot depends on who the backup catcher is: Kottaras, Varitek or another player yet to enter the discussion.  How much playing time the backup receives could push Martinez back over the 100-game mark or give the Red Sox the flexibility to keep his bat fresh and his innings in a crouching position limited.  However they work it out, there are a lot of options to consider.