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Big names not big need

Red Sox zero in on catching help

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 5, 2008
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His name might not be the big one in the free agent market. That is CC Sabathia, followed closely by Mark Teixeira. But there is one position more important to the Red Sox than a pitcher or first baseman. That is catcher, where the Sox have no viable starters on their roster.

Jason Varitek - or a suitable replacement - is a necessity. Teixeira might be a luxury. So, too, A.J. Burnett or Derek Lowe.

The next catcher for the Red Sox could come from the free agent market or via trade. Or, as general manager Theo Epstein allowed yesterday, the catching void could be filled by a combination of both.

"It's probably broader than people think, maybe not so deep," Epstein said of the trade market for catching with the winter meetings approaching Monday in Las Vegas. "If you study all the clubs, there are more teams with a catcher to move than one might think or that maybe is being represented. That doesn't mean that we've found a way to match up yet. We haven't. Probably more teams out there with catching that they can move than anticipated."

Though there hasn't been advancement toward a deal with Varitek, who has until Sunday at midnight to accept or decline the Sox' offer of arbitration, the team is exploring multiple options. Like signing Varitek and coming up with his replacement at the same time.

"That's a desirable outcome," Epstein said. "We also have catchers in waiting in the minor leagues who are talented but maybe not quite ready to step into a prominent role right now. We'll see. I'm confident that we [will] find a way to end up with a reputable catching corps that we hope will have us set up not only for 2009 but also for the future."

One possible stumbling block is Tim Wakefield. Kevin Cash - who is arbitration-eligible - was Wakefield's catcher last season, but that doesn't mean the Sox will need a personal catcher for the knuckleballer.

"We have to be mindful of the fact that Wake can be a challenge for some catchers," Epstein said. "At the same time, I don't know that even Wake feels we should limit our options at catcher because of any one pitcher. We just have to strike the right balance. [Varitek has] caught him in the past. He's always been an option to catch him. It's obviously something that [manager Terry Francona has] stayed away from in recent years."

Catching isn't the only area that needs to be addressed by the Sox. They are looking for a righthanded-hitting outfielder who can play center field and have explored Rocco Baldelli. The Sox are also likely to add a corner infielder.

With trade talks breaking down with the Tigers involving Julio Lugo, the Sox have three middle infielders on the roster. Alex Cora's name will come up, but his return will probably be contingent on Lugo being traded.

A starting pitcher? It's possible. The Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka to a six-year deal as a free agent two years ago, but he was just 26. This year's crop isn't in that age bracket.

"There are free agent pitchers we're interested in," Epstein said. "Some are more realistic targets than others. We've worked long and hard to try to build an organization that's not dependent on big free agent pitching signings. That's not typically a market that we enjoy diving into. That said, there will be pitchers signed to free agent deals who go on and are worth every penny and more, dominate for years to come. We're interested in a lot of those pitchers, but we have an approach and we'll probably stick with it."

As for position players who might garner eight- to 10-year deals on the free agent market, Epstein said it was an unlikely proposition for the Sox. But unlikely is not never. Epstein said the team doesn't have a "hard-and-fast rule, we just have criteria." So there might be a starter coming to roost with the Sox, or a new first baseman, late of the Angels.

For now, the Sox and their brass head off to Las Vegas Sunday to get some talks started, continue others, keeping one thing in mind. "The goal is always the same," Epstein said, "to get good players at reasonable deals for their prime years."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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