Catching Prospects

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Jason Varitek and his agent Scott Boras discuss their negotiating strategy. Image source: Boston Dirt Dogs.

The Red Sox have a problem behind the plate. Jason Varitek, our starting catcher, had a .313 on-base percentage, and only threw out 22.22% of base runners. Our backup, Kevin Cash had a .309 OBP, although he at least played good defense.

As we all know, hitting by Red Sox catchers was very poor this year. Varitek had only two months in which he got on base more than a third of the time. You might argue that catchers across MLB were terrible at hitting and getting on base, and you would be right. Unfortunately, there are some exceptions to this, and we faced two of them in playoffs: the Rays' Dioner Navarro (.349 OBP) and the Angels' Mike Napoli (.374 OBP, 20 HR).

More to the point, the Red Sox are not like most teams. They have a high payroll and the highest ticket prices. It's not unreasonable to expect more than mediocrity from behind the plate.

Randy outlined the available free agent catchers a while back, and they are generally as bad as Tek or worse. So let's take a look at some of the prospects and young players who might be available in trade.

First off, we can surmise that some players won't be discussed. Russell Martin is not available. Matt Wieters, Baltimore's young catcher, should also be off the table - he'll be a centerpiece of their rebuilding process. Geovany Soto just won Rookie of the Year for a contending team, so he's going nowhere. Leaving these people out, there are still some promising hitting catchers out there.

Jeff Clement - Major-league ready for two years, Clement is nonetheless blocked in Seattle by the veteran Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima until 2011. The 25-year-old has scorched in AAA the past two years, hitting .275 / .370 / .497 with 20 HR in 2007 and .335 / .445 / .676 with 14 HR in 2008. He hasn't shown much success in the bigs, as of yet, with a .237 / .309 / .393 line in 219 AB. Clement underwent arthroscopic surgery recently, but he's expected to be 100% by spring training.

J.R. Tolkein Towles - 24 years old, lacks good power, but hits well in the minors. Like Clement, he hasn't found success in the majors just yet (.188 / .288 / .323 in 186 AB). John Sickels compared him favorably with Geovany Soto before the season started, liking Towles' athleticness and potential.

Bryan Anderson - Blocked at C by Yadier Molina, who is signed cheaply through 2011 ($7 million 2012 option). Blocked at 1B by some guy named Albert Pujols. Turns 22 this December. Hits well, gets on base, lacks power. After his promotion to AAA this year, he hit .281 / .367 / .369 in 235 AB.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia / Taylor Teagarden / Max Ramirez - Texas has three catchers who are ready to step in at the major league level. I'm not going to spend much time on them, since we've discussed them elsewhere. Teagarden is the best regarded of the bunch, as he is polished defensively and hit well in his MLB callup (1.205 OPS in 16 games). Ramirez had strikeout issues in AAA and the majors (29.2% K-rate) but had a 1.096 OPS in AA. Salty's defense has been questioned, and he hasn't performed superbly with bat.

Louis Marson - Marson exploded onto the prospect scene with a .849 OPS this year at AA, largely driven by his .433 OBP. He doesn't have great power (.391 career slugging in the minors), but his on-base skills are pretty good (.370 career OBP in the minors). He'll turn 23 next year, and he's in Philadelphia's system. Sickels gives him a C+, and doesn't think too highly of him.

Of these guys, I like Anderson, Salty, and Teagarden the best, but any of the above would be cheaper, and quite likely better, than a full season of Varitek at >$6 million.

What do you think? What is our future at catcher, for 2009 and beyond? Show your essential leadership skills and intangibles: comment below, and answer the poll.

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