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'Tek issues

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  November 12, 2009 08:57 AM

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Jason Varitek has decided to come back as the Red Sox backup catcher. Now, newly anointed catcher Victor Martinez won't be looking over his shoulder to just chat with the umpire.

This won't end well.

For Varitek, sitting on the bench for at least four out of every five games and watching Martinez handle the pitching staff is going to be like having your Mercedes repossessed and then finding out your next door neighbor bought it at an auction. You'll still see the car every day, and he might even let you take it for a spin for old time's sake every once in a while, but the keys belong to him now, not you.

If Martinez, who is regarded as average defensively at best, is truly going to be the team's everyday catcher, as general manager Theo Epstein proclaimed earlier this week, then it would have behooved him to not have to deal with the shadow Varitek casts behind the plate.

The venerable Varitek would never intentionally undermine Martinez, but his mere presence could have that effect. Tek's return for a 14th season with the Sox sets up Martinez's game-calling skills to be second-guessed at every turn by fans, media and possibly his own pitchers.

Every time Martinez puts down a sign this season and a Red Sox pitcher shakes him off, you'll have to wonder if the pitcher is doing it because he thinks there is a better pitch in that situation or because it's not the sign that Varitek would have put down.

The Red Sox might really be happy to have the 37-year-old captain, who picked up his $3 million player option yesterday, back with the team, as Epstein told reporters in Chicago. But on the other hand, what choice do they have? This was Varitek's call, and it was one that the Red Sox couldn't shake off.

They have too much respect for Varitek to ever speak a disparaging word about him publicly, but if they really wanted him back, they would have picked up the $5 million team option in his contract or negotiated a new one-year deal with Varitek's agent, Scott Boras. Now, they're stuck with the difficult balancing act of moving on from Varitek with Varitek, which is all but impossible.

Can't you already envision a scenario where Josh Beckett, who seemed to be the most obstinate about Martinez supplanting Varitek as the team's best option behind the plate last season, goes to manager Terry Francona and asks for Varitek to be his personal catcher?

Beckett, who in three regular-season starts with Martinez had a 6.19 ERA, would have been forced to adjust if Varitek departed. Now, Beckett, in a contract year, can cling to his security blanket. So, every time the Red Sox send their ace to the mound they'll have to take Martinez's valuable bat (.303, 23 home runs, 108 RBI, .861 on-base percentage-plus-slugging) out of the lineup, a bat that is the primary reason Martinez is valuable as a catcher in the first place.

It will be sad to see Varitek reduced to the role of reserve receiver and catching caddie in the place where he made three All-Star teams, twice was behind the plate for the final out of the World Series, set a franchise record for games caught (1,381) and conducted himself in a manner that inspired the organization to name him team captain in 2004, which was the first time in 15 seasons and only the third time since 1923 that the team handed out the designation.

Varitek got a preview of his diminished role last season. Martinez started 31 of the final 60 games at catcher after joining the Sox in a July 31 trade from the Cleveland Indians and caught all three playoff games against the Angels, while Varitek and his captain's 'C' took a seat.

Varitek's shortcomings at the plate -- .209 average, 14 homers, 51 RBI -- and behind it trying to throw out runners simply became impossible to ignore.

After the All-Star break, he hit just .157 with 1 home run and 13 RBI, while striking out 41 times in 42 games. It was painful to watch baserunners victimize Varitek -- teams stole 108 bases on him against just 16 caught stealing -- especially that night in Arlington, Texas, when the Rangers looked they were auditioning for the Penn Relays with eight steals.

The in-season changing of the (shin) guard at catcher was awkward enough, but the Sox survived it, and Varitek, whose work ethic is only matched by his class, handled his demotion with professionalism. But being marginalized for a whole season is a different deal, especially when you're the captain.

It's hard to find a single pitcher who has worked with Varitek that doesn't revere him for his game-calling ability, which in these parts has become above reproach. It's hard to say that Varitek is overrated as a game-caller because pitchers swear by him, but it's also difficult to quantify the impact his gamecalling skills have.

Varitek can call the right pitch, but if it's not executed properly it doesn't matter. Conversely, he can call a bad pitch and it ends up in the Monster Seats and no one is pointing the finger anywhere but at the pitcher.

Statistically, Sox pitchers were better off with Varitek behind the plate last season than Martinez. Varitek had an American League-best catcher's ERA of 3.87 in 108 games. Martinez had a catcher's ERA of 5.22 in 33 games. The sample size skews the data a bit, but Varitek has a career catcher's ERA of 4.11 to Martinez's 4.41.

The good news is that Beckett seemed to be the only pitcher who was markedly worse with Martinez, and Clay Buchholz actually blossomed with Martinez, who caught 13 of the young righthander's 16 starts. Once and future ace Jon Lester also worked well with Martinez.

Remaining with the Red Sox was obviously important to Varitek. Plus, where else was he going to make $3 million at this stage of his career? You know Varitek will do all he can to help Martinez.

But it would have been best if Varitek had opted to catch on elsewhere.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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