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Kottaras a backup at forefront

By Nick Cafardo
March 23, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - The Red Sox baseball operations department has pieced together two championship rosters (2004 and 2007), complete with all the tweaking that needs to be done during the season.

So, in making their recent decision to keep George Kottaras as the backup catcher and the designated receiver of knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, we have to assume they know what they're doing.

They ended the Josh Bard experiment and went with Kottaras, who was obtained from the Padres to complete the David Wells deal of Aug. 31, 2006, after Kottaras caught Wakefield once successfully this spring.

It's taken Kottaras, a former infielder, a while to feel comfortable at catcher, and he's had to bulk up for the wear and tear and the collisions of the position. His defense has improved.

The Sox don't seem to care that outsiders are skeptical about Kottaras, but those same outsiders see the Sox as a possible trade partner. But it appears the 25-year-old Kottaras will start his major league career as Wakefield's catcher.

While the decision on the backup catcher isn't usually life or death, in Boston's case it's more important than anywhere else because we've seen what a disaster it can be if the catcher can't handle the knuckleball. The Sox also must come up with an eventual replacement for Jason Varitek.

The Sox re-acquired Bard in case they weren't able to re-sign Varitek, but when Varitek came back, Bard then was relegated to catching Wakefield, and that simply never worked out.

But if Kottaras isn't able to handle Wakefield, then what? A police escort for the return of Kevin Cash?

Nevertheless, over the next couple of weeks the Sox likely will have an opportunity to deal for a future starting catcher, who would have to catch Wakefield.

The Diamondbacks still will ship Miguel Montero to any team willing to give them a solid reliever and a prospect. The Sox have both to give, but while catchers are valuable, the price still seems high.

Montero, 25, a lefthanded hitter, gets excellent grades for his defense - and all the intangibles like calling a game and knowing how to handle pitchers. One scout said, "He's got a natural ability of being able to make the pitcher feel good on the mound. You see that with older catchers, but it's surprising to see it with a young guy like Montero."

The Sox won't give up a reliever and a prospect, but one solid bullpen prospect or even a younger reliever such as Manny Delcarmen? Maybe.

There aren't many other opportunities to choose from.

Texas has not come down in its asking price of Clay Buchholz for either Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden. Saltalamacchia likely will be the starter and Teagarden may wind up his backup unless the Rangers send him back to Triple A and use veteran Adam Melhuse as the No. 2.

The switch-hitting Saltalamacchia, 23, is in a crucial time in his development. The feeling of scouts is that he needs to play every day in the majors to improve as a receiver. However, if Teagarden is around, there'll always be the temptation to platoon them. Texas, which has some of the best pitching prospects in the game, still only would trade one of those catchers if it could add to its young arsenal of arms, which is why it is holding out for Buchholz.

The Sox and the Rangers are playing a game of who blinks first. Buchholz has had a superb spring, but who falls in love with great performances in March? The Rangers may be playing with fire, for Saltalamacchia and Teagarden's worth may never be greater - although the same could apply to Buchholz.

Seattle's Jeff Clement, a hard-working catcher, gets below-average grades for his defense but has shrugged off a 1-for-14 start at the plate this spring and is now hitting .235. He's battling Rob Johnson for the backup job, and the feeling is because Johnson is better defensively he may prevail as the backup to Kenji Johjima, with Clement possibly returning to Triple A.

The Phillies have been talking to the Sox about prospect Lou Marson, but the price tag seems to be Buchholz or Daniel Bard and the Sox aren't going there.

The Sox do have hope for their own catchers.

Dusty Brown is considered farther along than Kottaras defensively, so why was Kottaras chosen over Brown?

"That's not for me to answer," said Brown. "I just go out and do my work and improve every day and try to do what they ask me to do. I think no matter what happens I think it's a step up for George and for me."

While the answer seems to be Kottaras has a chance to be a decent lefthanded hitter and that he's out of options, the fact remains Brown has not caught Wakefield in a game. He did catch him on the side Saturday.

"I think ultimately they'd like to have a situation where Wake would be comfortable throwing to both of us," Brown said. "I thought the side session went well. Both of us spend a lot of time practicing catching the knuckleball on the machine where we crank it up and get knuckleballs coming at us all over the place, so it gets you ready to catch someone like Wake." Brown feels he needs to focus on handling a pitching staff and running a game.

Mark Wagner, who likely will start at Double A Portland, has no shortage of confidence and this could be his breakout season - both at the plate and behind it. The jury is still out on Wagner, though.

The catcher creating the most optimism in the Boston organization is Luis Exposito, who likely will start at Single A. Exposito totaled 21 homers and 68 RBIs last season. Possessing raw power, a strong arm, and good mechanics, the 22-year-old Miami native could develop quickly.

The one scenario in which the backup becomes a more significant contributor than just catching Wakefield would be if Varitek continues to struggle at the plate. After going 0 for 3 yesterday he's hitting .167, though two of his five hits are home runs and he's knocked in 10 runs in 30 at-bats.

If Varitek comes around, then it's all about handling Wakefield. As long as Wakefield remains a viable starter - and there's no reason to believe he won't - the Sox need a catcher who can handle him.

The baseball operations department, which has proven itself before, currently feels that man is George Kottaras.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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