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Red Sox get into position

Naming Martinez catcher opens doors

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / November 10, 2009

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CHICAGO - It wasn’t anything unexpected, but Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein announcing that Victor Martinez will be the team’s full-time catcher next season certainly smacked of something more on the horizon, and it certainly meant the end of more than a decade of Jason Varitek’s reign as the team’s primary catcher.

Martinez still might play first base or be the designated hitter, but the announcement opens the door for the Sox to do something big, namely Adrian Gonzalez. It certainly signified the passing of the torch, which began with Martinez’s acquisition from the Indians at the trading deadline July 31. So now we await word on whether Varitek will accept a backup role after 10 seasons as Boston’s starting catcher.

The Sox declined the $5 million option on Varitek’s 2010 contract, but he can elect to pick up his $3 million player option. Baseball sources indicated last night that Varitek will accept his option and will notify the Sox as soon as today. Varitek has five days to accept the option. His agent, Scott Boras, was due in Chicago last night.

“We’re going to really look for Victor to be the everyday catcher next year,’’ Epstein said. “What puts us in the best position to win is for Victor catching as much as he can. The spot we’ll have available is for more of a traditional backup. We’ll see what Tek’s decision is before we move forward.’’

Asked whether he was comfortable with Varitek as the backup, Epstein said, “Yeah, I think so. There’s a school of thought that says he’d perform better with a bit more rest.’’

As for V-Mart, who had his $7.1 million option picked up, catching the normal load for a front-liner is something he said he wanted to do when he first came to Boston. Yet the Sox tried to stick with Cleveland’s plan of having him play first base sometimes in an effort to keep him fresh. In the past, catching more has not made an appreciable difference in his hitting. He caught 124 games in 2004, 140 games in ’05, 83 games in ’06, 121 games in ’07, got hurt in ’08 and was limited to 55 games behind the plate, then last season caught 83 games. But he was in his 20s when he was catching that much. Martinez turns 31 Dec. 23.

“He really sees himself as a catcher,’’ Epstein said. “We have to be smart about it. We can’t push him to the point where we have diminishing returns. He feels he can catch a bit more and prepare himself to do that. We haven’t put an exact number on it. A lot depends on the exact shape he’s in. We expect him to be in really good shape. He’s a really hard worker. We’ll have to figure that out as we go.’’

Boston’s lineup was certainly better when Martinez caught, but one thing the switch-hitting backstop will do is spend a lot of time with catching instructor Gary Tuck in spring training. Scouts believe he has a long throwing motion, which makes it easier for runners to steal. The key is shortening the throwing motion, and Epstein believes the Sox’ pitching staff needs to improve on holding runners without sacrificing the quality of the pitch.

Martinez only threw out 13 percent of would-be base stealers in 2009 and the Sox pitching staff does not want another catcher who can’t throw out runners. But the Sox were pleased with Martinez’s handling of the pitchers and that he was a quick study. He caught Cy Young winner CC Sabathia in Cleveland and even though he butted heads with Cliff Lee a time or two, he caught some of Lee’s career in Cleveland as well.

Martinez also benefited by having Varitek to tutor him and that could continue.

Varitek’s place as one of the top catchers in Red Sox history is secure. Sox’ pitching certainly flourished during his heyday. To this day, Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe still consider him the best catcher they ever threw to. Unfortunately, Varitek’s hitting skills diminished quickly and the last two years were an exercise in trying to restore what was lost. His hitting never really came back and teams began running on him, although many times the stolen bases were the pitchers’ fault, particularly Brad Penny, who was a horror show.

Varitek remains a leader on the team and should be able to remain that way even in a backup role.

One player who has been through the transition is Brad Ausmus, who backed up Russell Martin in Los Angeles this season.

“I think Jason is going to be OK,’’ Ausmus said. “What I did was I approached it from Day 1 like I was going to be the backup and I was going to do everything I could to help Russell. We pored over scouting reports every day and came up with a good plan for that particular game. I know Jason is going to do the same thing because he’s so respected and we all know he’s the best in the game at being prepared. Nobody works harder than Jason Varitek in preparing a pitcher to pitch that day. He can still do that with Victor and it will be a big help to Victor. I’m sure some of that happened last season with the two of them.

“The one thing I found having all that time is you tend to get bored. You tend to try to find things to do. Last year I just sat with Don Mattingly and we went over the game inning by inning and move by move. It’s a way of kind of staying in the game. There were times I’d think to myself, ‘Gee, I would have done it this way.’ Or, ‘I wished I’d been out there,’ that kind of thing. There’s a definite mind-set you have to have and after you’re a starter for a long time you just have to accept that that part of your career is over.

“It’s not easy, but I think you’re going to have some pitchers who want to throw to Jason. You hope that doesn’t become a problem and it probably won’t. But knowing how professional Jason has been, I think he’ll transition to it just fine.’’

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

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