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Sox have pitching, but there's a catch

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 16, 2009 09:36 AM

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Twenty-seven days to go until pitchers and catchers report. Suddenly, one cannot help but wonder if the Red Sox need Jason Varitek now more than they did a month ago.

And judging by the newsflash that owner John Henry is flying to Atlanta tonight to meet with the free-agent catcher, perhaps the Red Sox are wondering that as well.

If pitching is to be the strength of this team, after all, wouldn’t it make more sense to have an experienced catcher?

"We’d like to make another move before spring training, if we can," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said earlier this week when discussing the team’s catching plans. "We’d like to add another name to that mix, but we’ll see."

Meanwhile, we wait for word of the details of the Henry/Varitek summit. And we wonder if anything at all regarding this offseason stalemate was settled.

By now, we all know the options as the Red Sox continue their search for a starting catcher. This winter, in this baseball corner of the nation, the names of Miguel Montero and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have been bandied about more than Deval Patrick and Tom Menino. At the moment, there is no indication that the Sox are close to a deal with either the Arizona Diamondbacks (for Montero) or the Texas Rangers (for Saltalamacchia), though each club is an obvious fit if and when the Sox want to pay the corresponding price.

Meanwhile, Varitek sits and waits, seemingly devoid of any other real options. You can't help but wonder tonight's meeting might lead to a conclusion to this high-stakes game of chicken.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the Red Sox’ offseason priorities now seem clear. The Sox wanted Mark Teixeira. When that plan dissolved, they instead opted for a series of low-risk, high-reward signings that included everyone from John Smoltz and Brad Penny to Takashi Saito and Mark Kotsay. What the Red Sox appear to have now, on paper, is a team that should truly excel in the areas of pitching and defense (never a bad thing) while possessing at least some questions about their offensive potency.

Will they be bad offensive team? No. But they might not be an elite offensive club anymore, either.

At the moment, the only glaring deficiency is behind the plate, where the Red Sox have a trio of catchers that includes Josh Bard, Dusty Brown, and George Kottaras. As much as Epstein continues to say that the Sox are prepared to go to camp with that group, his nose is beginning to look suspiciously longer. We can call it angling, lying, or posturing, but the Red Sox seem to have far too much invested in this team -- particularly with regard to their pitching -- to entrust the day-to-day responsibilities of staff management to an on-the-job trainee.

Really, do you want Josh Beckett looking in for signs with the seeds of doubt planted in the back of his mind? Do you want Smoltz peering in and wondering if the catcher knows what he’s doing? Do you want Justin Masterson or Manny Delcarmen throwing with any uncertainty at those moments of the game when everything might be on the line?

In recent years, the art of a calling a game has taken on absurd proportions in Boston, with Varitek being praised so endlessly that it sometimes has seemed as if there isn’t another capable receiver on the planet. That’s not the issue. The point is that the Red Sox, as presently constituted, have a need for a veteran catcher skilled on the finer points of the game, and there happens to be a free agent out there with those qualifications -- in addition to a considerable history with many of the Boston pitchers.

On too many levels now, Varitek makes sense for them. As thorough and detailed as he is, Epstein knows that as well as anyone. The question is what, if anything, stands in the way of a deal? Perhaps Henry will find out tonight.

Barring an unforeseen development that lands Varitek somewhere else on a multi-year contract, serious questions must be asked about the manner in which Varitek's agent, Scott Boras, has handled the negotiations. In retrospect, the moment the Sox offered Varitek salary arbitration, they backed him into a corner because they increased the price for any other club by tacking on a compensatory first-round pick. The moment that Boras rejected the offer, Varitek passed on a 2009 salary of, say, $10 million-$12 million, which is far more than he will now get on the open market from anyone, including Boston.

Had Varitek accepted arbitration and had a reasonably productive season -- we’re talking about a .245 average, 10-12 homers and 55 RBIs here -- he might have hit the market again this November and found a multi-year deal somewhere. As it is, he’s coming off a season during which he batted .220 -- and a mere .187 after May 21 -- and at a time when he’s approaching his 37th birthday (April 11) with 1,210 games caught.

Let’s say you’re running another team: Are you going to commit to a multi-year deal and give up a first-round pick given those realities? Unless you believe Varitek to be the piece that can put you over the top, the answer is no. Presumably, that is the reason Varitek is still out there among a large group of free agents, many of whom are safer investments.

Nonetheless, in the uniformed and non-uniformed corners of the baseball operations department, there never has been any doubt about the strength and depth of Varitek’s intangible skills, beginning with his leadership in the clubhouse and on the field. (At the moment, the latter is far more valuable.) After all the compliments the Red Sox have paid their captain over the years, they cannot kiss off his potential departure by saying those assets were overvalued. That seems especially true now, when those skills seem to be Varitek’s biggest bargaining chip.

Eleven years ago at this time, when the Sox added Pedro Martinez, one of the biggest questions concerned the inexperience of Boston catchers, then the tandem of Varitek and Scott Hatteberg. The Sox won 92 games and claimed the American League wild card spot. What many forget is that those Sox frequently called pitches from the bench -- pitching coach Joe Kerrigan would relay the signs from the dugout -- and that the Sox had a top-heavy staff built around one of the greatest pitchers of all-time during the peak of his career.

Since that time, Varitek has evolved into arguably the second-best Red Sox catcher of all time, taking a back seat to only Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. Nobody in franchise history (including Fisk) has caught more games. Varitek frequently has spoken of Red Sox pitchers working with "conviction," which was his way of saying they needed to believe in what they were throwing.

What he never said was that he had a big hand in getting them to believe it.

In the best-case scenario, with regard to their catching, the Red Sox would enter this season with Varitek serving as mentor to a younger catcher or apprentice, be it Saltalamacchia, Montero or anyone else. Despite the signing of Josh Bard (non-guaranteed contract), the Sox can still do so because signing Varitek and trading for another catcher are not mutually exclusive. The Sox have the money and prospects to do both, and Varitek’s importance in that scenario has only grown in the wake of Epstein’s recent moves to improve the pitching depth.

During Varitek’s career in Boston, day-to-day preparation always was his greatest strength.

At the moment, it certainly seems as if the Red Sox now have a greater need for that than they do his bat, arm, or glove.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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