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The Mitts in Boston

With Kevin Cash signing a minor league deal with the New York Yankees (certain to embark more gamesmanship talk than the move merits) and Jason Varitek hanging in limbo, the Red Sox will need to find two catchers in a rather weak catching market. Unlike most teams, Boston’s reserve catcher does not simply play on random or in day games following night games. Instead, the back-up catcher for the past few seasons is simply Tim Wakefield’s caddy. That means the Red Sox are looking for a quality starter and a back up with either experience dealing with knucklers or a willingness and aptitude to do so.

It seems likely that George Kottaras, perhaps best known for being the return on David Wells, will be the Sox reserve backstop in 2009. An offensively gifted catcher, Kottaras produced 7.6 wRAA for Pawtucket last season, and throughout his career is usually around league average. Next year’s strikeout rates could look ugly, but Kottaras does a decent job of drawing walks, which helps to offset some of the sting. As for actually catching, Kottaras looks awful. In 70 games with Pawtucket Kottaras threw out ~19% of baserunners, or 15 of 80 and had 10 passed balls. It’s worth noting that Kottaras did catch a knuckleballer in Pawtucket by the name of Charlie Zink. While it would be easy to blame that connection on Kottaras poor numbers, Kottaras body of work speaks against the notion that Zink was the catalyst for defensive ineptitude.

If Kottaras is the back-up, who is the starter? The Elias Sports Bureau all but guaranteed Jason Varitek’s career would end in a Red Sox uniform when their compensatory system crowned him as a Type-A free agent. Varitek’s not getting any younger, and if you recall, was pitiful last season. Flashing a low line drive rate while walking less and whiffing more. Fans and pundits alike will talk up Varitek’s game calling abilities along with intangibles immeasurable. Denying that such attributes exist is foolhardy; instead we’ll assume the effects are marginal until proven otherwise.

Of course, there’s also the loyalty aspect between the two sides. When Boston traded Heathcliff Slocumb to the Seattle Mariners for Derek Lowe and the 25-year-old Varitek in 1997, they had no idea a minor league catcher without a great track record of success would turn into a stalwart through a decade and two World Series championship teams. To all of those who would say the Sox owe it to Varitek, I would remind you that the Sox should be committed first and foremost to winning. Sometimes to keep that commitment, emotions must be placed aside. Varitek’s performances have yet to reach the point where it hurts the Red Sox by simply playing (1.3 WAR in 2008, three-year average of ~1.8) but he’s nearing the age where a total collapse is not unexpected.

Finding a worthwhile catcher on the free agent market is tough as usual. A name that leaps off the list in terms of low-risk medium-reward is Josh Bard. The former Sox, Bard is an interesting buy-low candidate, in large part due to bad luck. A .230 batting average on balls in play and 21.6% line drives, don’t gel whatsoever. Bard’s walk and strikeout rates remained static to his career averages, and unlike last time, catching a knuckleball will not be in the job description. Over the last three seasons, Bard’s average WAR is higher than Varitek’s, albeit in fewer plate appearances.

The other option for Boston is to acquire a catcher via trade. Texas Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the best longevity-pleasing option around. Whether the Red Sox are willing to part with the price associated with the former top prospect, (likely one of the Buccholz/Bowden/Masterson trio) is to be seen. Saltalamacchia struck out 37.4% last season, yet still found a way to walk enough to maintain a decent on-base percentage. The power shown in the minors should come soon, even if the defense remains shoddy. Saltalamacchia is only expendable because of the Rangers young studded catching surplus, the equivalent of running a gun shop during the zombie apocalypse.

Given Boston’s proficiency in managing their roster correctly, you almost have to expect the Sox to upgrade behind the dish heading into next season.