What Do You Do With An Aging Catcher?

Filed in Sports by on November 11, 2009 0 Comments

Author’s Note: As this post went up, the Red Sox announced Jason Varitek’s decision to re-sign with the team for the 2010 season. Good timing, eh?

With the much anticipated—though ultimately unsurprising—announcement on Monday that Victor Martinez would return next season as the Red Sox primary catcher, Jason Varitek suddenly became the odd man out. While the Sox brass picked up extensions to the contracts of Martinez and pitcher Tim Wakefield, they declined to exercise their one-year, $5 million club option on the 37 year old Varitek, leaving his future with the team uncertain.

Varitek now finds himself faced with the awkward choice of playing for Boston next year in a greatly diminished role, signing elsewhere and leaving behind the team for which he has played his entire career, or retiring. Varitek has until Saturday to announce if he will exercise his one-year, $3 million player option and return to the Red Sox, or become a free agent.

The decision to keep Martinez as the Sox main backstop had been expected since Boston acquired the switch-hitting catcher on July 31. To get Martinez, Boston sent Justin Masterson—one of their most versatile young pitchers—along with several touted prospects to the Indians, a steep price to pay had their intention been only to snag an extra bat for two months plus the postseason.

Varitek’s performance in recent years also made the move all but assured. Since posting a career high .296 batting average in 2004, Varitek’s numbers have fallen steadily, bottoming out at a dismal .209 this past season. His woes at the plate even engendered a satirical brief by the fake news outlet, The Onion.

By contrast, Martinez’s numbers are incredible for any player, and especially so for a catcher. Last season, he hit for a .303 average with 23 home runs and 108 RBIs. With stats like that, making Martinez the everyday catcher was a no-brainer.

Though Varitek is still considered a great catching catcher, one adept at calling a game from behind the plate, his skills at the plate finally became too much of a liability for a good-but-not-great lineup that was unable to support any weak links. As the season wound down, Varitek saw less and less playing time, ultimately sitting out the entire Division Series.

The catcher switch is also significant in that Varitek is—or, perhaps, soon to be was—Boston’s captain. Red Sox officials have often touted his leadership in the clubhouse, particularly his guidance of the team’s developing pitchers. If Varitek and the Red Sox part ways, both sides will come away knowing that the separation was strictly business.

It’s this last bit that makes the transition feel more ponderous than it appears on paper. While forming the strongest possible team is obviously necessary to compete for a championship, it’s still sad to see a dedicated player fade out like this as a rising star blazes in to replace him. It’s a perfect example of the old no longer being good enough, and unfortunately the stats are there to prove the case.

“We’re going to really look for Victor to be an everyday catcher for us next year,” Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein told a group of Boston reporters at the General Managers’ meetings in Chicago. “We feel like that puts us in the best position to win with Victor catching as much as he can.

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