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Mixed signals behind the plate

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 11, 2012
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CLEVELAND — The Red Sox put catcher Kelly Shoppach (and shortstop Mike Aviles) on trade waivers on Friday, according to a major league source. It’s procedural for the most part, but likely indicative that if they could get something for Shoppach at this stage of the season they would find more playing time for Ryan Lavarnway.

The quandary for Sox management is that Shoppach is a good defensive catcher and the pitching staff obviously responds to him. Clay Buchholz pitched a beauty Friday night with Shoppach behind the plate, a complete-game two-hitter in a 3-2 win over the Indians.

An experienced backstop who came up through the Sox organization before he was traded to the Indians in the Coco Crisp deal in 2006, Shoppach has some value.

And after you saw how Buchholz and Shoppach clicked, you have to wonder, do the Red Sox really want to break this up?

It’s not often that teams carry three catchers on the active roster. But the Sox are doing just that.

Lavarnway was recently named Baseball America’s top defensive catcher in the International League. That’s a huge honor for Lavarnway, who until this season was known for his power and overall offensive ability.

The Sox brought Lavarnway up feeling he had accomplished just about all he could at Triple A and hoping to take advantage of his offense. But it’s tough to get playing time for three catchers. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is Boston’s No. 1 catcher, but clearly Bobby Valentine feels better using Shoppach, now hitting .250 after going 0 for 4 Friday night with two strikeouts, against lefty pitchers.

The problem the Red Sox have is, when do they think the season is over and start preparing for next season? They’re still unsure. That’s why Shoppach is still here. He handles a pitching staff very well, and always has. In Tampa Bay he caught the likes of James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Matt Garza.

“He knows pitching,” said a major league special scout at Friday’s game. “He’s got Buchholz throwing his entire repertoire. He understands mixing up pitches and throwing to different sides of the plate. He’s steady back there. He presents a good target for the pitcher and pitchers seem comfortable with him.”

The staff ERA with Shoppach behind the plate is 3.88, and with Saltalamacchia it’s 4.64. Shoppach has also thrown out 34 percent of runners trying to steal. ERA is not just a reflection of how good the catcher is, it reflects how well the pitcher throws when Shoppach is receiving. If he’s catching the best pitcher on the team, like Buchholz, his ERA is going to be that much better.

In asking for trade waivers on Shoppach, it merely allows the Sox to see what interest is out there. The Sox had some interest in Shoppach from the Nationals, Brewers, and Mets at the non-waiver trade deadline, but elected to keep him. By placing him on trade waivers they can see if anyone claims him. If someone does, they can either award the team the claim, try to work out a deal for him, or pull him back.

At some point, however, the Sox have to make a decision on Lavarnway. They must commit to him in at least a platoon role so he can get better as a receiver in the major leagues. The Red Sox know that once they commit to Lavarnway they must stick to it and perhaps take their lumps while he’s learning.

But what if the Red Sox are about to go on a run? Do you risk losing your best defensive catcher for an unproven rookie, and hope your No. 1 catcher can match the defensive output that Shoppach provided?

Teams believe these are good problems to have, but it creates havoc for the manager. He’s trying to keep everyone happy. He wants to make sure that Saltalamacchia knows he’s the No. 1 catcher because he’s earned that. While he’s striking out at an alarming rate (nearly once every three at-bats), power-hitting catchers are hard to come by.

It remains to be seen how long the Sox will keep three catchers. When David Ortiz is ready to return from the disabled list, it may bring a change. Until then Lavarnway can help out at DH, going 1 for 3 in that role Friday night.

Lavarnway has struggled since he came up; he’s just 2 for 16. But the edict from up above is for Valentine to play him as much as possible.

We will see over the next week whether the situation fixes itself and whether the Red Sox deal Shoppach. If the team should go on a winning streak, it’s doubtful Shoppach is going anywhere.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at Cafardo@Globe.com or aTwitter @nickcafardo

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