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Weighing their options

Posted by Maureen Mullen February 19, 2009 05:56 AM

The Red Sox have built their roster over the past few seasons with an equal mix of veterans and young players. Those ingredients have given the team certain intangible benefits — the knowledge, experience, and presence of established players such as 2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell and 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett, as well as the drive and energy of young players such as Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury.

The roster makeup has given the organization more tangible advantages, too. With just five players on the 40-man roster who are out of options — the fewest in baseball — the Sox enjoy a degree of flexibility that will serve them throughout the season.

“We’ve made an effort to have that flexibility on our roster,” said assistant general manager Jed Hoyer. “With our veteran team, a lot of these guys, they might have options, but contractually they’re on the team. So in order to get some flexibility, you have to get some players with options.”

A player maintains options when he has been on the 40-man roster for parts of less than three seasons. A player who is out of options has been on the 40-man roster at some point in three different seasons.

The advantage to a team of a player with options is that he can shuttle between the big-league team and the minors, and there’s no possibility of losing him. A player who is out of options must clear waivers and be outrighted to the minors, losing his spot on the 40-man roster and potentially being exposed to the Rule 5 draft in December.

“During the course of a season, if someone goes down for a few days with a small injury, we need someone who can come up and down,” Hoyer said. “If they’re a good player, they’re not going to get through [if they’re out of options]. … you look at what [Kevin] Youkilis did for us in the past as a good example. He was able to go up and back for us many times. That gives us a lot of flexibility to bring a good player up and down.”

The Sox players who are out of options are at positions — bullpen and catcher — that will force decisions in spring training as the team pares down to a 25-man roster for Opening Day: catcher George Kottaras, left-hander Javier Lopez, and right-handed relievers Manny Delcarmen, Wes Littleton, and Ramon Ramirez.

Delcarmen and Lopez would seem to have solidified their positions on the roster. Littleton and Ramirez, acquired in the off-season, appear to be set as well.

“Ramon I would almost put in a different category,” Hoyer said. “He’s a guy who’s had two excellent major league seasons. So, I think he’s established himself as a major league pitcher.

“The reason we were able to get Wes from Texas was because of his option situation. They had no interest in trading him before he was out of options, and once he gets to that situation, they’re looking at it as in spring training it was fish or cut bait with him.”

It may be a different story for Kottaras, acquired in September 2006 from the Padres in exchange for pitcher David Wells.

In addition to Kottaras, the Sox currently have four catchers in camp vying for the opportunity to back up Jason Varitek and catch Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball: Josh Bard, Dusty Brown, and Mark Wagner, who are all on the 40-man roster, and non-roster invitee Carlos Maldonado.

“I think any time you have a backup catcher on the roster, the knuckleball equation is there, too,” Hoyer said. “But [Kottaras] had a very good year last year. He had 22 homers in [Triple-A] Pawtucket. We just need to see the continued maturity from him behind the plate, continued development. Catching is definitely a position that people grow into and mature later, and we just want to see continued growth there. That’s the most important thing. But he’s a valuable guy and he’s certainly not a guy that we want to lose.”

For Kottaras, the issue of options will be part of the equation.

“He’s not going to get through waivers, or we’re assuming he won’t,” Hoyer said. “We know that if he doesn’t make our team, there’s a very good chance we lose him.”

Maureen Mullen covers the Red Sox for OT and can be reached at mmullen@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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