Last week, we made our breakdown and predictions for the 2012 Red Sox lineup from manager to closer, but with the uncertainty of Jason Varitek’s return decided to wait on analyzing the catcher position. But the time has come to face life without Varitek.
The absence of Varitek is no small event in Boston. For years he represented the Red Sox. Along with Jim Rice and Carl Yastrzemski, Varitek is only one of three official captains in Red Sox history, and he was obtained in what turned out to be one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history (Derek Lowe and Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb).
In ’05 Varitek won the Silver Slugger award, a Gold Glove and was named to the All-Star team. He was the leader of the Red Sox for the better part of a decade. The peak of Varitek’s rise as leader of the Red Sox occurred on July 24, 2004: the fight with Alex Rodriguez. The second he shoved his glove in Rodriguez’s face, Varitek was cemented as a Red Sox legend.
But everyone who reaches the peak of Everest must also make the long arduous journey back down. Last season, Varitek batted only .221, with 11 HRs and 36 RBIs. He appeared in just 68 games.
For the 2012 season, the most Varitek could muster from Boston was a minor-league contract offer. Now the Sox must look at a trio of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kelly Shoppach and Ryan Lavarnway to fill the void Varitek leaves behind.
Saltalamacchia: He will be the Red Sox starting catcher this season. Theo Epstein wanted Salty and his 2003 first-round draft pick potential for a long time. But Saltalamacchia, for now, is serviceable at best. He’s 26 years old and, eventually, potential runs out. This is a make-or-break year for Saltalamacchia in Boston. His 2011 power was good with 16 HRs, but he struggled down the stretch and ended the season batting only .235. He needs to bring his AVG up and prove he can play effectively for an entire season. The pressure is on Saltalamacchia. He may be improving defensively, but the Red Sox may eventually need to look elsewhere for a catcher who hit only .235 and allowed 26 passed balls last season.
Shoppach: He was once a rising star in the Red Sox farm system. Now he’s simply the backup in an uncertain Red Sox catching platoon. Playing for triple-A Pawtucket in 2005 he hit .253, with 26 HRs and 75 RBIs. With his offensive numbers, along with his solid defensive play, he seemed poised to make a future impact for Boston. But things didn’t pan out, and he was shipped to Cleveland. Playing for Cleveland in 2008, he approached his triple-A numbers batting .261, with 21 HRs and 55 RBIs. That is the only season Shoppach ever matched his triple-A potential. It’s all been downhill from there. Last season, Shoppach only mustered a .176 BA for the Tampa Bay Rays. Shoppach’s real value is his defensive skill and his ability to throw out runners. But Red Sox fans can expect to see Shoppach in the lineup against left-handed pitchers. While his overall AVG is only .197 over the past three seasons, he’s hitting lefties at a solid .262 clip in that same time.
Lavarnway: He is the truly exciting player in this catching mix. It’s interesting Terry Francona went with the 24-year-old catcher in games 161 and 162 last season over Saltalamacchia. The Red Sox were desperate for wins and Saltalamacchia sat on the bench while Lavarnway hit two home runs. Lavarnway has a long way to go to improve his defense behind the plate, but the Red Sox may be willing to sacrifice some defense for a consistent bat. Last season, he combined to hit .290, with 32 HRs and 93 RBIs while playing for double-A Portland and triple-A Pawtucket. Those numbers get Red Sox fans excited. Lavarnway can’t run, but he can hit. While he may project to be more of a DH type in the future, don’t be surprised to see a lot of Lavarnway behind the plate this season.
Contributor: Brian Hendrickson