With nine potential free agents on their roster, the Red Sox have a lot of decisions to make. And it’s safe to say the one that will have the most impact on the team will be the decision to re-sign Jason Varitek — or not.
Varitek, who will turn 37 in the first week of next season, has set the gold standard for catchers in his 12 seasons with the Sox. But he struggled through his most difficult offensive season this year. His .220 average was 43 points below his career mark of .263 and well off his career-best .296 in 2004. The switch-hitter’s right-left splits were significant: He hit just .201 (66-for-328) from the left side and .284 (27-for-95) as a righty.
“I’d take Varitek if he hit .210, just by the way he works hitters and the knowledge he has of how to run a game,” said a major league scout. “He makes bad pitchers into mediocre pitchers, and he makes mediocre pitchers into pretty good pitchers. How he gets some of the stuff he gets out of them, I don’t know. He’s pretty damn good.”
The question facing Sox management is: If not Varitek, who? It’s a familiar question this off-season, with many teams looking for front-line catching.
“That’s a heck of a question, because there sure isn’t much around from what I’ve seen,” said another major league scout. “The only free agent guys that would be worth anything would be Varitek and [the Yankees’ Ivan] Rodriguez. The rest of them, they’re either backup or not very good front guys. If they lose Varitek, they better hope the [replacement] does well. I don’t think there’s anything else around, and anybody that has a catcher that’s worth anything is not going to want to part with them for sure.”
Those other “free agent guys” include Toronto’s Rod Barajas (the team has a $2.5 million option) and Gregg Zaun, the Cubs’ Henry Blanco ($3 million team option), the White Sox’ Toby Hall ($2.25 million team option), and the Reds’ Javier Valentin.
“I have no idea where you’d find a catcher or one that’s worth even talking about that’s available, as far as a free agent goes,” the second scout said. “There might be a club that would trade its front-line catcher, but I don’t know. But you’d probably have to give up half the ball club to get him.”
None of the catchers currently in the Sox organization is likely to step into the starter’s role. David Ross, who turns 32 in March, caught a career-high 108 games in 2007 for the Reds; Cincinnati released him this past season. Kevin Cash caught 54 games in 2008 and has a career total of 183. George Kottaras made his big-league debut late this season, and Dusty Brown appeared in 70 games behind the plate for the PawSox, catching a total of 353 games in six minor league seasons. The Sox’ top catching prospect, Mark Wagner, is playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League.
“For the last two or three years, I talk all the time about how down the catching is,” said a third scout. “And even in the minor leagues. There’s got to be some kids getting ready to serve us here somewhere, to get the catching back, to give us some more depth in catching around the league.”
Until then, who?
In case you’re wondering
The Sox’ other possible free agents are pitchers Paul Byrd, Curt Schilling, Mike Timlin, and Tim Wakefield ($4 million club option for 2009); Ross ($3.5 million club option for 2009); infielders Sean Casey and Alex Cora; and outfielder Mark Kotsay.
Todd Claus, one of the Sox’ major league advance scouts for the last two seasons, has left the organization to take a coaching position with Jacksonville University. Claus, 39, was promoted to advance scout after being named Baseball America’s Double-A manager of the year in 2006, when he led Portland to the Eastern League championship. He joined the Sox in 2004 as manager of Single-A Sarasota.
“I have chosen to go in another direction with my future,” Claus said.
Maureen Mullen covers the Red Sox for OT and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org