Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Minor-league catchers jostle for position

The Red Sox have three catchers -- Luis Exposito, Tim Federowicz and Mark Wagner -- steadily climbing the minor-league ladder with a real shot at making an impact in the major leagues within a couple of years. Catching has always been a defensive-minded position, a position that has as much to do with working with pitchers as producing at the plate.

Red Sox fans are well aware of Jason Varitek's fanatic belief that his defense and his work with pitchers takes priority of his work on his swing. Even when Varitek was hitting the ball -- and it's easy to forget now that he OPS'ed better than .850 in back-to-back-to-back seasons earlier this decade -- his biggest contribution to the Red Sox was widely believed to be his ability to play defense and to work with pitchers.

It might be surprising, then, to hear what it'll take for one of the three to separate himself from the pack in the next couple of years, at least according to director of player development Mike Hazen on Wednesday: "The ability to perform offensively."

It might say something about the confidence the Red Sox have in the defensive ability of each of their three young catchers that they're going to insist on offensive production out of whoever ends up earning regular playing time at Fenway Park.

"Every catcher you look at at the major-league level usually shows some sort of degree of an ability defensively -- throwing, running a game, that type of stuff," Hazen said while meeting with reporters at the rookie program. "You go and look at any major-league catcher that, even in the big leagues, 'Oh, he only hit .220,' but they all hit in the minor leagues. Those guys, if they're going to be everyday catchers, they have to produce offensively."

If that's the case, Exposito would seem to have the inside track.

The 23-year-old, a 31st-round draft pick back in 2005, OPS'ed .778 in a season split between Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland. In 97 plate appearances with the Sea Dogs, Exposito hit .337 with an OPS of .860. His power numbers went down -- he hit 21 home runs in 2008 but only nine in 2009 despite similar playing time -- but that didn't discourage Red Sox evaluators.

"He's got tremendous raw power," Hazen said. "He might have the best righthanded raw power in our system. From that standpoint, it's a very intriguing package he brings to the table.

About the only downside for Exposito was an on-base percentage that didn't separate itself much from his batting average. In his 97 plate appearances in Portland, the catcher walked just four times.

"Theo (Epstein) said that plate discipline is one of the factors that can separate you," the catcher said, "so I'm definitely going to work on that and try to live up to expectations that the organization has for me."

Said Hazen, "He's got to continue to work on refining his plate discipline, approach, managing his at-bats. That's still the biggest thing we're going to impress upon him."

Federowicz and Wagner didn't put up the type of offensive numbers Exposito did. Federowicz -- pronounced Fed-ur-OH-vich -- OPS'ed .825 in his two stops last season but saw his numbers dip quite a bit when he jumped from Single-A Greenville to Single-A Salem. Wagner hit just .214 with an OPS of .619 in more than 150 at-bats after his promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket.

At this stage, though, it's all about getting at-bats.

Trying to juggle three catchers in a minor-league system isn't the easiest thing in the world. The Red Sox don't want to wear down their catchers them by asking them to get behind the plate for 120 or 130 games, but they also don't want to split time so evenly that development gets stunted.

That's why Exposito played for the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League and why Wagner spent part of his winter playing for Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Republic.

"We don't catch our catchers every day in the minor leagues," Hazen said. "The wear and tear is extremely difficult. They usually end up with about 350 plate appearances instead of the 500 a typical everyday player would get."

The three catchers likely will start the season at different levels in the minor-league system: Wagner at Triple-A, Exposito at Double-A, Federowicz at Single-A. As the weeks go by and promotions become necessary, however, the Red Sox will have to figure out how best to divide up the playing time. Exposito and Federowicz already overlapped in Salem, and they likely will do so again this season in Portland.

"It gets very challenging," Hazen said. "Everyone always says that it's a great problem to have, but it's a tough problem to manage. It's a challenge. We need to make sure those guys are able to catch four or five days a week and get those (at-bats) in. We always pick it up with the (designated hitter) at-bats for those guys, but we need to get them time behind the plate."

That's the only way, after all, the Red Sox will determine whether any of those three will be able to succeed Varitek and Victor Martinez as a starting catcher in Boston.

"Those two guys are tremendous catchers that have tremendous tools," Exposito said. "We're all after the ultimate goal to make it to the big leagues. Professionalism, the professionalism of myself, that's all I can worry about."

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