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Sox Offseason part two: Varitek, etc.


Oh, don't pretend you don't know what book it is

Tony Maz keeps saying the Red Sox' priority at the winter meetings will be to sign Mark Teixeira, which, as we discussed earlier, they should do if they can. At the same time, though, it's hard to understand why that situation would be their first priority, since they've known for a long time now that they would be facing a tough decision on their catching situation.

Let's lay out the realities here for the Red Sox:

• Jason Varitek has been their primary catcher since 1999, when he took over for Scott Hatteberg. In that time, he's made three All-Star games (I know, we'll get to it), won a Gold Glove, and with a couple of injury-plagued exceptions, generally been an above-average offensive catcher as well. 

• Other than Carlton Fisk and Jorge Posada (I know, we'll get to it), most catchers are pretty close to cooked by their age-35 season. Generally. You can take a look for yourself: pick a catcher whose name you can remember and check it out on baseball-reference.com. Joe Torre. Mike Piazza. Johnny Bench. Terry Steinbach. Sandy Alomar, Jr. Mike Scioscia. Some of these guys may hang on and play for years afterwards, but their days of productivity generally end around their mid-30s. In some cases, even before.

• Jason Varitek will turn 37 in April of next year.

• Last year, Varitek had by far his worst offensive season: .220/.313/.359. He made the All-Star team, but his selection was widely mocked and was generally pointed at as one of the many reasons the All-Star Game was gradually becoming more and more of a farce. It was also a contract year, and Jason Varitek is represented by the slimy-yet-effective Scott Boras.

• Jorge Posada at age 35 had a fantastic season in a contract year. This led to his signing a four-year deal with the Yankees ... and promptly injuring his shoulder. People have already been speculating that he may be close to done as a catcher.

• Scott Boras is saying that Varitek will be seeking a Posada-style deal: four years, $52 million dollars.

• The Red Sox should be openly laughing in his face and mocking him, but they aren't. Which isn't to say they're listening, but ...

... It's complicated. The Red Sox are normally known for being exhaustively prepared, for using their resources to their advantage, for not sacrificing the long term for the sake of the short term, and for a focus on depth. Yet on the surface, their approach to the catching situation - and it's not just Varitek - seems to have been "let's wait until Varitek is a free agent and then hope everything magically works itself out somehow!"

I'm exaggerating, of course. If it was as simple as saying "we need a catcher, let's get one!" they'd have done so. Other GMs, believe it or not, are not totally stupid, and they would likely adjust their asking price to reflect the fact that the Red Sox would be trying to negotiate from a position of weakness. And they did acquire both Josh Bard and George Kottaras; one didn't work out and the other isn't quite what one would hope for.

And at the same time, the idea that Varitek brings nothing to the table is not wholly without merit - it's just that there's no tangible info to back it up. Around the game, Varitek is revered for his ability to handle pitchers - to effectively call a game to match up a pitcher's strengths with an opposing team's weakness. We all have heard the stories about how he has these huge notebooks full of data on pitchers and hitters from around the league. Certainly his pitchers speak highly of him. People insist - there's no real way to measure his impact. And that's also the problem - if there's no way to measure it, how do we know it's real? Chad Finn wrote a blog post today in which he points out that Varitek never seems to get much blame for certain pitchers' failures as members of the Red Sox, which I'm not totally sure is fair given that at least four of the guys he mentioned had arms that were in various stages of disrepair when he got to work with them (Clement, Kim, Miller, Howry). But that doesn't mean the substance of his argument - namely, that the "Varitek-effect" on pitchers is overstated - is wrong. Approach it a different way: look at how the pitchers did after they left. Derek Lowe had some great years with the Dodgers. Pedro had an excellent year as a Met before his arm finally gave out. Jeff Suppan, J.C. Romero, Bronson Arroyo (briefly), Joel Pineiro, Cla Meredith, and probably a few others I'm forgetting all pitched quite well without access to Varitek's brain.

Yet, all that said, if he was willing to come back on a short-term deal for a relatively low dollar amount with a handshake agreement to serve as a part-time backstop and mentor to whatever young protege Theo can line up for him, I'm sure most would agree that that would represent the ideal situation. The four-year demand was made by Boras, but we don't really know what Varitek wants. Maybe he'll pull an A-Rod and kick his agent out of the negotiations? Or maybe not. We can hope, though.

What we do know, somewhat amusingly, is that the Rangers' young catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia would love to be a member of the Red Sox in the near future. The Sox are probably interested, even if the better choice may be his Texas teammate Taylor Teagarden. Texas will likely look for one of Buchholz, Masterson, or Bowden, which is a tough pill to swallow, but not an impossible one. We can look at those three pitchers another time.

Either way, memo to Salty: wait until you're actually traded before talking about how playing somewhere else is a dream come true. 

 

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