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.