Jason Varitek Still Has Role to Play With Red Sox in 2010


November 6, 2009

Jason Varitek Still Has Role to Play With Red Sox in 2010 Since the late '90s, the Red Sox have welcomed their fair share of characters through the doors on Yawkey Way. Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Kevin Millar, Orlando Cabrera, Johnny Damon, Carl Everett and Ugueth Urbina — to name a few — provided the spark and excitement that a team needs on occasion.

But standing out among the rest has been Jason Varitek, Boston's model of consistency on the field and in the clubhouse.

When the Red Sox sewed the "C" on the catcher's jersey, the organization showed how far it was willing to go to show Varitek the appreciation he deserved.

That, however, was in 2004. The Red Sox had just broken the curse, and their 32-year-old catcher had been driving the ball with the best of them. Now, it's 2009, and the 37-year-old is facing a career crossroads with the Red Sox.

The Red Sox hold a $5 million option on Varitek for 2010, one they're almost certain not to exercise after the catcher hit just .209 in 2009. Varitek, though, holds a $3 million option to stay with the Red Sox, one that would be a win for both sides if he chooses to exercise it.

It's no secret that Varitek isn't the offensive threat he once was — not by a long shot. After launching a pair of homers in Minnesota on May 28 to bring his season total to 10, Varitek hit just four more in his next 231 at-bats. When it came time for the playoffs, Varitek never even got to hold a bat.

Yet to point to his sharp offensive decline over the past two seasons as a reason to ship him out of town would be a shortsighted solution. No, he can't be the everyday catcher, but he won't need to be. Varitek can help the Red Sox most by serving as a backup.

Varitek's biggest problem in 2009 was that the Red Sox needed him to be more than he was. They needed Varitek to be 32 years old again.

In 2010, however, with Mike Lowell needing much less time off than he did last year, Victor Martinez will be able to spend the bulk of the season behind the plate. That will allow Varitek to play once or twice a week at most, and in turn will allow Lowell, Martinez and Kevin Youkilis to each take a breather every 10 games or so.

It's not unreasonable to expect more out of Varitek, who will turn 38 on April 11, if his load is significantly lessened. Fatigue could have been a factor in Varitek's drop in batting average (.239 in the first half of 2009, .157 in the second half) and also in his inability to throw out base stealers (13 percent). Though many of those steals were as much the fault of the pitcher on the mound, there were several occasions when Varitek was slow to get out of his crouch.

Ideally, if Varitek played only after several days of rest, he'd be much more productive, and he'd be as good a backup as there is in the major leagues.

Of course, that reason alone isn't necessarily enough to re-sign a veteran catcher. But that's where Varitek's leadership — both in the clubhouse and in the bullpen — comes in to play.

Realistically, having Jason Varitek in the clubhouse won't inspire Dustin Pedroia to get more hits, nor will it motivate Jacoby Ellsbury to swipe an extra bag or two. Varitek's presence will, however, help a pitching staff that still includes a number of young arms. Varitek himself seemed to admit that he wasn't the same player before this year's postseason began, yet he remained confident in his ability to help the ballclub.

"It's different, but the fact of the matter is that we need to put our best lineup out there," Varitek said in early October. ?I have one job to do — support my teammates and be prepared if the bell rings. … You can't control your playing time, but you can control the other parts of what you can contribute. It may not be by playing. It may be by being on the bench.

"There are things you see," he said. "Things you can offer."

Those "things" cannot be easily described. They're the types of "things" that only a 12-year veteran who has spent 11,316 innings behind the plate and has stepped in for 4,765 at-bats in the bigs can bring. They're the type of things that help a ballclub win.

The Red Sox can win without Varitek, but they're a better team with him on board. For $3 million, it's a no-brainer.

NESN.com will be answering one Red Sox question every day in November.

Thursday, Nov. 5: Is Alex Gonzalez the answer at shortstop?

Saturday, Nov. 7: Who is the ace of the Red Sox' staff?

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