The Red Sox and Jason Varitek will soon be faced with critical decisions; to remain in partnership or to part ways.
For both parties, the decision will be a difficult and perhaps emotional one. Varitek has been with the Red Sox for 11 seasons, longer than any current player other than Tim Wakefield. Varitek is the team leader, and because of this unquestioned status was named team captain four years ago when he signed his last contract. The organization loves "Tek" and he loves the Red Sox.
But baseball is a multi-million dollar business and the Red Sox have a history of generally making good, sound business decisions, absent irrational emotion. They don't let their hearts get in the way of their own best interests.
Varitek is widely lauded for his gritty, hard-nosed leadership. He has also been credited with helping to groom the club's young pitchers, and getting the best out of its veterans. However, he is not the player he once was. At age 36, he experienced a precipitous decline this season. And he will be 37 in the second month of the 2009 season, an advanced age for any catcher. That would seem to merit a two-year offer from the Sox -- at most.
With him or without him, the Red Sox need additional help behind the plate.
During the regular season, Sox catchers ranked 13th among the 14 American League teams in OPS, 13th in slugging, 10th in on-base percentage, last in batting average, 12th in RBIs, 13th in total bases, and last in runs scored.
“Red Sox catchers” essentially means Jason Varitek, since Kevin Cash only played every fifth day and had just 142 at-bats this season. That said, Cash batted just .225 in limited action. However, Varitek was even worse, hitting just .220 in over 400 at-bats. And Varitek also had career lows in both on-base (.346) and slugging (.439) percentages.
Varitek’s woes extended into the post-season; he hit .214 (3/14) in the ALDS, and then had just one hit in 20 at-bats -- his much celebrated homer in Game 6 -- during the ALCS. If you’re scoring at home, that’s a .050 average. And over the entire playoffs, Varitek hit just .088 in 32 at-bats. How pitiful.
By August, things had gotten so bad that the Sox -- perhaps as a contingency plan for the post-Varitek era -- signed catcher David Ross to a minor-league contract after he was released by the Reds. Ross hit 17 homers in 311 ABs in 2007, and 21 homers in 247 ABs in 2006. Yet, he had a .369 OBP, .231 average, with 3 homers and 13 RBI in 60 games of action last season.
The 31-year-old finished the season at Pawtucket and could conceivably compete for a roster spot next season, depending on what happens with Varitek and Cash. The Red Sox would be his fifth team, and first in the American League. Considering Ross' poor offensive skills, it says a lot about the dearth of catching throughout baseball that he would even considered a possibility.
Varitek’s agent, Scott Boras, emphasizes that his client's value comes from his leadership and defense. Over the past three seasons, including the playoffs, the Red Sox have a .596 winning percentage in games in which Varitek has appeared, and a .508 winning percentage when he did not. This season, the Red Sox went 78-53 with him and 17-14 without him.
However, that record is actually the result of the fact that Tim Wakefield pitches on Varitek’s off days; Wakefield is an average pitcher who has lost more games than he’s won in two of the last three years. Would Wakefield and the Sox really have better winning percentages if Varitek caught him as well? It's highly doubtful.
Boras can come will all the charts, graphs and statistics that he wants to, but none of it can mask the fact that Jason Varitek is an aging catcher in decline. It's truly hard to imagine a big market or serious demand for him and his faded offensive skills. What's more, Varitek only caught 16 of 72 (22%) of base-stealers this year.
Hopefully the same loyalty and comfort with playing in Boston will compel him to accept a two-year offer from the Sox. Remaining in Boston would also keep Varitek on a highly competitive team that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series each year. And a two-year deal would also give the Sox time to groom Varitek's successor, whether it's Mark Wagner, Luis Exposito, George Kotteras, or some player who isn't even in the Red Sox organization right now.
But one thing's for sure; neither Varitek or the Red Sox will have many other good options. That's why it's likely they'll remain in partnership for a couple more years. And then if all goes right, Varitek will continue with the organization as a coach, something he seems destined for.
Copyright © 2008 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.