Red Sox Mailbag: Catching Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek’s Fix for Middle Relief and the Hidden-Ball Trick


Red Sox Mailbag: Catching Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek's Fix for Middle Relief and the Hidden-Ball Trick FORT MYERS, Fla. — The temperature has barely budged from around 80 degrees all week in Red Sox camp, and you could count the number of clouds most days on one hand. It's given the camp a bit of a "Groundhog Day" feel to it in the sense that each afternoon of workouts feels much like the one before it … not that anyone's complaining.

Baby steps are being made toward putting together the team that will test expectations perhaps unlike any in team history. If you have any questions about how that team is coming together in Fort Myers, keep them coming in the mailbag or on Twitter. We took a step back in the sheer volume of these inquiries this week, so let's step it up next week people. I promise to bring it from my end.

Here is the latest edition of answers this week's questions:

1. Who is likely to catch Tim Wakefield?
— Susan Russo

Susan, this was one of the items we were looking to learn more about in camp, and we have. After Jason Varitek caught Wakefield's first throwing session to hitters Saturday, manager Terry Francona stressed that getting Tek back on board with the knuckleballer is key. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has never caught Varitek in a game, will also be put through the test. Essentially, Francona cannot worry about making a switch behind the plate every time he brings Wakefield out of the bullpen, so both guys need to be prepared.

If you recall, Wakefield's outings were handled last year by Victor Martinez and Kevin Cash, neither of whom are around anymore. Varitek has caught Wakefield in 147 games, but just one inning since 2005. It will be something to watch for the first time Wakefield gets on that mound in real game action.

2. How much playing time do you think Mike Cameron will get?
— Jack

I think we had a similar question last week or the week before, but now that we're in camp and have heard from all the parties involved, it is apparent that Cameron will be a key component to the outfield. He offers up a near-perfect alternative to right fielder J.D. Drew if Francona wants to give Drew a day off against a left-hander.

Cameron said he is prepared for a part-time role, and Drew has stressed the importance of having someone like Cameron, and Darnell McDonald, to spell each of the three starting outfielders this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see Cameron get at least 50 starts and a lot of time off the bench.

3. If Jarrod Saltalamacchia does not deliver adequately as the starting catcher, do you think the Red Sox would have to look outside the organization to fill that role? If so, what available catchers do you see on the market for this upcoming season?
— Kenyon

It would take a pretty long stretch of not delivering adequately. Saltalamacchia will be given every opportunity to play through any early struggles he has. Varitek himself uttered this line when asked about the situation Sunday: "He's not a rookie. He's not a first-year player. He's established and he needs to play. When he plays, we've got to let him play. Just like we do with pitchers. You have to take the good, bad, indifferent and let them carry on from there."

The captain's words are as good as gold around camp, so expect to see plenty of Saltalamacchia. He is only 25, remember, and there won't be any desire to look for help elsewhere for quite some time.
There aren't many appetizing options floating around out there on the market, although Jose and Yadier Molina could be free agents next year and another Molina, Bengie, is still looking for a job.

4. Hey, Tony. I'm giving Saltalamacchia the benefit of the doubt. How's he doing so far?
— Dustybhere

The Saltalamacchia topic deserves a little more attention, so let's build upon that with a quick answer for Dustybhere. The young catcher has been one of the early stars in camp, receiving praise from several of his teammates and his manager for the way in which he carries himself. The comparisons to Varitek have been made multiple times.

This is a switch-hitting catcher with good tools behind the plate and power with the bat. If he develops the way the organization thinks he will, he could be a star in time. For now, the Sox will be pleased if he handles the staff the way Varitek does, and each of the pitchers seems to love throwing to him.

5. The Sox Achilles' heel the last couple of seasons has been in middle relief pitching — very inconsistent, and unreliable. How will the Sox improve this area to take pressure off the closers this season?
— Kevin Brady

Well, middle relief gets exposed when it has to be used on a regular basis. Ideally, the starters will last a bit longer into games this year and the Red Sox can just slam the door shut with the trio of Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks. Once again, Varitek opined on this matter the other day, saying that the fortunes of the bullpen will rely on the rotation.

It also doesn't hurt to have a little more depth than they had in previous years. Dan Wheeler is a perfect fit as a sixth- or seventh-inning guy, Hideki Okajima is hoping for a better year and Scott Atchison was a key component in 2010, throwing strikes and getting outs in all portions of the game. Matt Albers, Dennys Reyes, Alfredo Aceves (who can also start), Andrew Miller, Rich Hill and many others are part of a pretty hefty list of options that the Sox can use to get outs at some point this year.

6. What young arms can come up and help the Sox during the grind of the season?
— One man is not a nation

Building on our prior answer, there will be some guys in Pawtucket that can come up and get some outs in the bullpen. As far as starters go, which I believe is where the question is going, the first guy to get that call will be Felix Doubront. He made three starts for Boston last year and appeared nine more times as a reliever.

The Red Sox will stretch out Doubront during the spring so that he opens the year as a starter. Certainly, he could be used down the road as a reliever, but ideally, he will remain in a starting role. After Doubront, the ranks of major-league ready starters is rather thin. There are some intriguing prospects in Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman, both drafted last year, but they have yet to throw a pitch in the system.

Junichi Tazawa, coming off Tommy John surgery, will be available later in the year after a little more rehab work. He pitched in six games — four starts — for the Red Sox in 2009.

7. Tony, I have wondered why there are no more hidden-ball tactics to trap a runner off base than there is. With the lackadaisical way some of these guys literally doze off on base, it seems there would be more attempts at it, or would that cause the team trying it to get their hitters thrown at, as if to say a cheap way to get an out?
— Dick Bennett

Is this the former University of Wisconsin basketball coach? Good to hear from you, Coach Bennett, and thanks for mixing things up with this one. Frankly, I don't know everyone's stance on hidden-ball tricks, but you will see it once or twice a year. Mike Lowell pulled it off once when he was with Florida, tagging a runner leading off third base.

There is a good amount of lackadaisical baserunning these days, but making this ploy work has to take some planning and some pretty good execution. Also, deception on that level isn't as much a part of the game anymore. Tales of spitballs and teams using a telescope to steal signals, such as the New York Giants allegedly did in 1951 when tracking down the Brooklyn Dodgers, are somewhat a thing of the past.

Let's put it this way. They are conducting many drills in Fort Myers this week and none will involve the hidden-ball trick. It would be fun to see at some point in 2011.

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