Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Firing up the Hot Stove: Catcher

The Red Sox packed up the clubhouse on Monday, which means it's time for the hot-stove season to begin in earnest. Here at One If By Land headquarters, we'll take a position-by-position at what Theo Epstein and the Red Sox will be thinking about as the offseason gets under way.

The natural place to start is catcher, also the topic of today's story in the Union Leader. It might be where the Red Sox make their biggest decision.

Last season
Jason Varitek: .220 (.313 OBP), 13 HR, 43 RBI
Kevin Cash: .225 (.309 OBP), 3 HR, 15 RBI
Dave Ross (split between Cincinnati and Boston): .225 (.369 OBP), 3 HR, 13 RBI
George Kottaras (at Triple-A Pawtucket): .243 (.348 OBP), 22 HR, 65 RBI

Next season
Varitek is a free agent; when reporters asked after Game 7 about his status for next season, his voice almost appeared to be breaking when he said, "I would rather not talk about it." After such a miserable season at the plate, a season in which the 4-6-3 double play in the eighth inning became far too routine, the knee-jerk reaction is to assume he won't be back.

But who else is out there? More importantly, who else is out there that would be a significant enough upgrade with the bat to offset what Red Sox pitchers would lose in terms of game-planning and steadiness behind the plate? Some get tired of hearing about how his leadership impacts the team, but the more you hear teammates talk about it, the more you have no choice but to believe it.

"It really falls on 'Tek," budding ace Jon Lester said after his win in Game 4 of the ALDS against Los Angeles. "He does a good job of keeping a good pace back there and calling a good game."

Said second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the type of player who could inherit the 'C' eventually, “When he walks in the door at one o’clock in the afternoon, his presence everyone feels. He doesn’t even have to say anything. That’s the type of teammate he is and what kind of player he is. Everyone looks to him for advice and looks up to him. That’s why he’s the captain of our team. He sets the tone.”

The free-agent options are sketchy; the options in the farm system are unproven. Epstein could try to trade for one of Texas' two young catchers (Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden), but either would cost the Red Sox someone like Michael Bowden or Clay Buchholz, and that might be too steep of a price to pay if Kottaras or one of the other internal options will be ready in two years.

What they'll do
Look for the Red Sox to offer Varitek a short-term deal with the understanding that Kottaras will see fairly regular playing time. Someone will have to catch Tim Wakefield; in an ideal world, though, Kottaras would play twice a week and Varitek three times -- or possibly the other way around. It's time to start easing someone else into that position, but there's no one else in the pipeline who's proven he can do what Varitek can do.

But if he's not willing to do that, if his professional pride leads him either to another team where he can start or to retirement, it would be easy to understand. In that case, the Red Sox might either have to go with a Cash-Kottaras platoon or pick from one of the lousy options available via the free-agent market.

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