A Long Search For A Long-Term Catcher

With spring training less than a month away, there's not a franchise in baseball in a more enviable position than the Red Sox.

The lineup the Sox fielded for Game Four of the World Series in Colorado will almost certainly be the one Terry Francona sends out for the season opener in Tokyo Mar. 25. The bullpen returns intact and the rotation is even deeper than it was last fall with Clay Buchholz—he of the no-hitter in his second big league start—expected to occupy a spot from Opening Day.

Yet with a farm system universally ranked among the top five in the game, this is no house of cards. The Sox are well-positioned to add reinforcements—of the temporary and long-term variety—just about everywhere on the diamond.

Except at catcher, where the Sox are apparently counting on Jason Varitek to continue turning back Father Time at a position where few players continue to perform well—or at all—beyond their mid-30s.

Varitek, who turns 36 in April and is entering the final season of a four-year contract he signed after the Sox won the 2004 World Series, recovered from a career-worst campaign in 2006 (.238 with 12 homers, 55 RBI and a .325 on-base percentage) to hit .255 with 17 homers and 68 RBI last year while drawing 71 walks—his most ever—and recording a .367 on-base percentage, his second-best total over a full season. His agent, Scott Boras, is hoping to meet with club management this spring to discuss a new deal for Varitek, whose resurgence at the plate—coupled with his work behind it as well as his chemistry with Sox pitchers—will likely result in a lucrative short-term extension.

That, and the fact the Sox have nobody at all ready to replace him.

It's not for a lack of effort: The Sox have made finding a catcher of the future a priority since 2005. But Jonathan Egan, whom the club selected out of high school in the supplemental round of the 2005 draft, hit .194 with 94 strikeouts in 232 at-bats between Single-A Greenville and the rookie-level Gulf Coast League last season. George Kottaras, acquired from the Padres in exchange for David Wells at the end of the 2006 season, hit .241 and committed 10 errors at Triple-A Pawtucket last year.

The best options to replace Varitek may be a pair of players initially overlooked in the race to replace Varitek. Mark Wagner, a ninth-round pick in 2004, has enjoyed two straight impressive seasons at the plate at Single-A and impressed the Sox with how he handled a pitching staff at hitter-happy Lancaster last year. And the Sox have been pleased with the leadership and defensive abilities of Dusty Brown, a 2000 draftee who was added to the 40-man roster last fall even though he's yet to collect 300 at-bats in a season due to a variety of injuries.

But Wagner and Brown—who appear likely to split time at Portland this season—are at least two seasons away from contributing in the big leagues. And Sox executives understood, long before the struggles of Egan and Kottaras, just how difficult it is to develop prospects at the most challenging position on the diamond.

"I think the biggest thing that young players struggle with as a catcher is separating the offense from the defense," Sox director of player development Mike Hazen said. "Because on the defensive side of things, you're not just worrying about yourself. You need to be worried about the 12 pitchers that you're working with everyday. So that means early work, bullpens and doing your own defensive catching drills. How am I throwing? What's my footwork like? Receiving, blocking—all those things that go into it. So it's extremely difficult, physically, to play.

"And then you put in the mental component and you ask them to go hit. A lot of times, minor league catchers end up sacrificing the time they would have spent normally that other position players get to spend in the cage, doing early work. They're out working on their defensive game or they're helping the pitchers."

Such difficulty in finding a long-term catcher of the future is not a problem unique to the Sox—or just about anybody else, for that matter. Since Carlton Fisk left Boston after the 1980 season, only two homegrown catchers have collected at least 300 at-bats in a season for the Sox: Rich Gedman (1984-86) and Scott Hatteberg (1997-98). Varitek was drafted by the Mariners in 1995 and acquired by Dan Duquette—along with future 20-game winner Derek Lowe—in the fleecing that sent Heathcliff Slocumb to Seattle at the trade deadline in 1997.

In addition, only 11 teams had a homegrown starting catcher last season. That total includes the Angels, who had Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis—drafted in 2000 and 2001, respectively—splitting time behind the plate. It also includes the Yankees, who received a career year out of Jorge Posada in the final season of his contract. Posada, who turned 36 last August, re-signed to the tune of four years and $52.4 million—the highest average annual salary for a catcher.

The Yankees must hope Posada follows in the footsteps of Fisk, who solidified his Hall of Fame candidacy by hitting at least 18 homers in a season six times after his 36th birthday. But Fisk is the exception. Johnny Bench was already retired at 36 while Gary Carter was well into the backup journeyman phase of his career. Even Mike Piazza, the all-time leader in home runs by a catcher, has failed to record a 400 at-bat season since turning 36.

The Sox do not expect Fisk-like production out of Varitek, whose decline at the plate already seems to have begun: After recording at least 39 extra-base hits in three straight years from 2003-05, he delivered 33 extra-base hits in 386 at-bats in 2006 and 35 in 435 at-bats last year.

At this point, the Sox will be happy if he can produce something in between Brad Ausmus, who turned 36 in April 2005 and has hit .241 while averaging 21 extra base hits, 37 RBI and 129 games at catcher over the last three years, and Benito Santiago, who hit .273 while averaging 38 extra-base hits, 59 RBI and 121 games behind the plate during his age 36-38 seasons from 2001-03.

Mostly, the Sox hope their re-investment in Varitek pays dividends by buying them more time to search for his replacement.

"I think the catcher position is the most challenging position in baseball," Hazen said. "And it only puts in perspective how valuable Jason Varitek is."

Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752.

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