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 latest installment examines the catcher position.
The old switcheroo: Pushing a beloved team captain out of his role as the primary backstop would cause turmoil in most camps. In Boston, it's been accepted, in part because the guy doing the pushing is so darn good.
In Victor Martinez, the Red Sox have baseball's second-best offensive catcher (behind Minnesota's Joe Mauer). And in Jason Varitek, who has handled his demotion from the starting job with grace, they have perhaps the best backup catcher in the game. By having both accept the situation and build a bond, the pair gives Boston a nearly ideal situation behind the plate.
If they can only take care of those pesky baserunners.
Varitek, Martinez and others were part of a Red Sox catching unit last year that was historically awful at cutting down would-be base stealers, nailing just 13 percent of them. That's the worst figure in the majors since the San Diego Padres cut down just 10 percent of runners in 2007, and the lowest mark in the AL in at least 55 seasons (1954 was the first year such numbers were recorded).
The Colorado Rockies ranked second in such inefficiency last year, coming in at 19 percent.
Of course, the pitchers who hold the runners on and the coaches who make maneuvers to slow down running games have a hand in those success rates. But Martinez had gunned down only 15 percent last year before he was brought in from Cleveland and has never developed a defensive reputation.
Working with Varitek, who was quite capable in the category before his arm seemed to weaken, Martinez has a partner in the push to improve.
"You know [Varitek and I] will take the blame," Martinez recently told reporters. "I don't mind. Our job is to make things easier for the pitchers. [The season] is 162 games and you want to be perfect, but you won’t be. Pitchers have a tough job, but I know on my side — and on Tek's side — we'll take the blame.
"There’s always room to improve and to get better, so we’ll see. We've got a great pitching staff and they don't have to prove anything to anybody. They just have to go out there and pitch their game."
While there's a chance fans will be frustrated beyond belief — as they were the night Carl Crawford stole six bases on his own against the Red Sox last May, or the night Texas stole eight bases as a team, or the night Texas stole six bases as a team — some comfort will come knowing they have the franchise's best offensive catcher since Carlton Fisk.
For about 130 games in 2010, Martinez, who is entering a contract year, will be behind the dish and batting third. He'll play a handful more games at designated hitter and maybe a few at first base, too. The club his hopeful that his .336 average and 41 RBIs in two months with the Red Sox last year was an indication of things to come, although some semblance of his career marks will do — Martinez is a .299 lifetime hitter with three seasons of more than 20 homers and 100 RBIs to his credit.
For another 30 games or so — mostly against lefties — Varitek will get his chance, swinging from the one side of the plate he still offers up a bit of resistance.
And in between each of the 162 games, the two will take it upon themselves to figure out a way to keep the base paths a bit quieter.
Other options: The farm has some quality catching options for the first time in a while and potential fill-ins are on the horizon. One is Luis Exposito, who has already impressed this spring and will hold down the fort at Double-A Portland, where he hit .337 in limited play last season.
Another is Tim Federowicz, who has a great defensive makeup and tore up the South Atlantic League last season. In 55 games with Greenville, the 22-year-old hit .345 with 10 homers.
More immediate help, but not long-term answers, exists in Pawtucket, where Mark Wagner and Dusty Brown will likely split time. Also, Brown is always good for an emergency arm on the mound.
If all else fails: We'll take it as a given that Joe Mauer will re-sign with Minnesota. If that's the case, and if the Red Sox and Martinez need to go their separate ways earlier than expected, there are several veteran catchers slated for free agency after the season and potentially available at the trade deadline.
Among the group are Gerald Laird, John Buck, Bengie Molina, A.J. Pierzynski and Miguel Olivo.
Do not expect it to ever come to that.