Editors Note: The Red Sox will break camp with 25 players heading north to Boston. We begin a daily look at each position on the club, from the projected starters to their backups. Our first installment examines catcher.
The odd couple
There will be many things said about the Red Sox’ catching duo this season, regardless of how they perform. Some will be accurate. Other comments will be guided by emotion. The one term that will always be on point in describing the tandem of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek is “unique.”
If Saltalamacchia and Varitek get through the season healthy and remain the two featured backstops, it would mark the largest age difference between the top two catchers (in terms of playing time) in one season in franchise history. It truly is a case of teacher and pupil. Frankly, the two figures may be perfectly suited for such roles.
“We have Tek and Salty and I think we’re pretty comfortable with that, maybe more than people realize,” manager Terry Francona said Sunday in camp.
While Varitek is still an effective receiver and showed last season that he can be productive with the bat in a limited role (he hit .342 with six homers in his first 14 games last year), he is almost a coach on the field, and in the dugout. And what better subject for him to offer that veteran guidance to than the 25-year-old Saltalamacchia, who is trying to fulfill lofty expectations in this, his third organization.
If there was ever a “project” that can help Varitek put a professorial cap on a stellar career, it is Saltalamacchia. And if there was ever a teacher that a young catcher would want to have offering instruction, it is Varitek.
Fans may expect such fulfillment from the get-go. Management is willing to be patient.
“Salty’s had a tremendous winter,” Francona said. “Again, you’ve got a guy that’s potentially a power-hitting, switch-hitting catcher. If that doesn’t come to fruition right away that’s not the end of the world.”
In addition to the way in which the two should complement one another off the field, they ought to provide a nice platoon on it. Saltalamacchia will get the lion’s share of starts due to the fact that he hits righties well. Varitek will get to take advantage of his prowess vs. lefties, getting the bulk of his outings when southpaws are on the mound. If both live up to career norms, the position could produce a solid .800 OPS, while both offer switch-hitting capabilities.
The thing is, that may not even matter much. The catching tandem is in charge of the club’s greatest commodity, its quality pitching staff, a staff that had its fair share of hiccups in 2010. Everyone knows that Varitek is a highly respected receiver who has taken leadership to new levels. Some of that has to rub off on Saltalamacchia, a guy the organization has always liked behind the dish.
“We love the way he wants to run the game and he aspires to run the game,” Francona said of Saltalamacchia. “And Tek’s in a good spot. He feels good about where he is and that makes us feel better.”
It’ll be a partnership of two players more than 13 years apart in age. If it comes together the way the organization hopes, a position considered by some to be a weakness could become a strength.
Should one of the two go down, the system has 26-year-old Mark Wagner, a defensive standout with a marginal bat, to fill in. Luis Exposito, one of the organization’s highest-ranked prospects entering the 2010 season, is also sitting on the 40-man roster. He isn’t ready quite yet, but remains an intriguing guy who has 14 homers and 106 RBIs in 148 games at Double-A Portland over the past two years.
If all else fails
One of the guys who flew past Exposito on most prospect lists last year was Ryan Lavarnway, a Yale product with a very powerful bat and a sturdy, 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame. The organization has no interest in rushing along Lavarnway before he learns the tools of the trade, but he would be a last resort if the depth at the position is shattered by injury. Lavarnway was the organization’s Co-Offensive Player of the Year in 2010 after hitting 22 home runs and driving in 102 runs between Single-A and Double-A.
Veteran Bengie Molina, who has hinted at retirement, is one of the only catchers still looking for work at this point. He has said he still wants to start, but let’s see what he says in a month or so.