With only 15 days remaining until truck day (yes, just 15 days. If you don’t know what truck day is, you should find out, it’s better than christmas, especially for Joos) the Red Sox roster is coming into focus. The rotation is solid, with seven guys ready to take the ball: Beckett, He Who Will Never Be Doubted, The Japanese Wiggler, Wake, Penny, Smoltz (after June 1) and Suchholz.The bullpen is solid with all of the new guys plus the crew that was strong at the end of last season. The lineup card should look like this:
1. Jacoby Ellsbury CF
2. Dustin Pedroia, AL MVP 2B
3. David “fear me” Ortiz DH
4. The Beard that Should Not Be 1B
5. Jason “Buzzards” Bay LF
6. J.D. Drew RF
7. Mike Lowell 3B
8. Little Jeddy SS
9 Josh Bard C
Thats right, Josh Freaking bard is our only major league ready catcher. George Kottaras, no matter what kind of boner Dale Arnold has for him, is not the answer, either offensively or behind the plate. Dusty Brown is simply not ready (and is no sure thing either) and a trade for one of the guys in Texas or Arizona does not seem to be on the horizon in the near future. But what about the guy who held down the job last year? Where did he go to that multi year offer that his agent (Satan) told him was coming? Oh, yeah, he’s waiting for someone to come to him.
Jason Varitek is in a no win situation. His fate has been a big question since the days following the end of the 2008 season in October. He will not get an offer from anyone other than the Red Sox, because as a type 1 free agent, any team that signs him will have to give up a first round draft pick. The Sox don’t have to pay him big because they know this. Each time another catcher signs, Varitek’s options dwindle. First Texas traded Gerald Laird to the Tigers and Ramon Hernandez went to Cincinnati, closing the door that many thought might be open in Detroit or Cinci. Then, when Satan turned down a one year deal in Boston for $10-12 Million in arbitration, he lost the only guaranteed money that was going to be out there. Now as teams start to sign backups (Brad Ausmus and the Dodgers, Henry Blanco and the Padres) the market begins to close down even more.
The Red Sox are in a prime position of power over one of the most important players in recent team history. They can cut the cord now, move on and take the risk that comes with having another receiver behind the plate, bring back the Captain for another year as the starting catcher and deal with the future of the position later or bring him in as a mentor to a guy who they think is the catcher of the future. Of course, the issue isn’t what Varitek can do behind the plate, where he is one of the best in the game still, but what he does with his spot in the lineup. Last season was unquestionably the worst in the career of the one time Silver Slugger winner. He hit .220 with only 13 home runs and 43 RBI. He was a liability with his inability to create the all important productive out down the stretch and into the playoffs, striking out at many times when something as simple as a ground out would have advanced a runner or scored one. This failure was one of the factors that led to the Sox falling two runs short of the AL Pennant. The 2007 season was significantly better in most categories. He hit .255 (.035 better) reached base at a .367 clip (.o54 better) and had 25 more RBI. These may not be astounding offensive numbers, but for such a premium defensive position, and one which has such an impact on the pitching staff, Tek’s 2007 stats are enough to give him that spot in the lineup.
From the Sox side, it is time for a decision. The cold, analytical part of Theo is ready to move on, more so since the rejection of arbitration. These are the tough decisions that come with the success that the team has had in the past few years, and what will keep them competitive in the future. Yes, we need a new catcher who can take the job and run with it as Varitek did in 99. That is the cold hard facts of the situation. John Henry, on the other hand, is a more sentimental type, and met with Jason at his Atlanta area home last week. He wants to be loyal to one of the men who has done a tremendous amount for his organization. He wants Varitek to be able to return to the team and leave on his own terms, not simply be let go.
The main problem with taking Theo’s route and cutting the cord is that there is no viable replacement on the roster. The three catcher coming to spring training are Josh Bard, George Kottaras and Dusty Brown. The last two are too young and inexperienced to tackle the every day duties of handling a pitching staff, even though Dale Arnold has a man crush on Kottaras and Brown has a great ballplayer name (if you are going to name your kid dusty he can’t become an accountant). They are also not ready to produce offensively in the Major Leagues. Kottaras, in two seasons in Pawtucket, has failed to hit above .243, and though he has shown pop (22 HR last year) his RBI production is disappointing (only 65). Brown, who many see as a better prospect, had 12 HR, 55 RBI and a .290 average last season, but was limited to 297 at bats (84 games) due to injuries. Neither one is ready to be an every day Major League hitter, and their inexperience behind the plate is too much to ignore. Over the Monster had a great rundown on the two of them at the end of December, where they said that using these two is worth a shot, but as Truck Day and Reporting Day get closer I still don’t think that they are ready.
Bard, on the other hand, has plenty of Big League experience, though never in a starting role. The catcher, 31, has played parts of six seasons in the Majors. He has never started more than the 118 games he did in 2007, when he hit .285 with 5 hr and 51 RBI. He is a very viable back up catcher but due to his age, injury history, and relative (to Varitek) lack of experience handling a pitching staff, he is probably not ready to take over for a man as sturdy as the Captain. Yeah, Bard could start for most clubs, like he did for the Padres, but this is a different situation. The Red Sox are a club built to win now, and having a mediocre player filling such an important role just will not do. The fact that every member of the pitching staff has raved about all that Varitek does for them when he is behind the plate gives you a clue as to how important that experience is.
It comes down to this: The best option in November is still the best option today. Sign Varitek and bring in a young catcher to apprentice to him for one or two years, whether that is by bringing Brown up to be the guy, or trading for someone like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, or Miguel Montero. Though it is a sellers market, especially since everyone knows that the Sox are getting desperate, catching is at as much of a premium as young pitching is these days and it may be a wise move to let some of the minor league arms go for the catcher of the next ten years. Varitek, like Lowell and Ortiz, is primed to have a bounce back year. Unlike last season, this year he will not be playing under the outside pressure of a failing marriage which has become fodder for the Inside Track, and his head will be focused squarely on his game. I would expect a return to his 2007 numbers at least.
Now it’s up to Theo, Henry, Lucchino and their crew to decide. Will it be a return for the Captain, or a new dawn behind the plate for the Sox?