Fact: As a catcher, Victor Martinez makes a good first baseman – and a D.H.
Fact: Jason Varitek, at 38, is on the down side of a once brilliant career.
Fact: Both players’ contracts expire after the 2010 season.
Question: Who will comprise the next generation of Red Sox catchers?
Will it be either Pawtucket catcher Mark Wagner or Dusty Brown, each of whom is on Boston’s 40-man roster?
Or will it be one – or both – of Boston’s very best catcher prospects, Luis Exposito or Tim Federowicz?
Depending on who you talk to outside the organization, it’s possible to get the impression that Wagner and Brown are keeping the position warm for Exposito and/or Federowicz.
“The way I look at it is we have two really good, young catchers in Dusty and Mark,” said Pawtucket Red Sox manager Torey Lovullo even though Wagner fractured his left hamate bone in late April and is expected to sidelined six to eight weeks. “Dusty has a little more experience than Mark. They’re here in Pawtucket to compete and add reinforcement for the big league club if needed. That’s my focus on the situation with these guys because they are one step away from the major leagues.
“With ‘Fed’ and ‘Expo’, they are great, young catchers that are loaded with talent. Their ability and upside is off the charts. But, still, they’re in the developmental stages of their careers (Exposito is at Portland while Federowicz is at Salem).
“At some point, continued Lovullo,” they’re going to be sitting in the seat that these two fine, young catchers are sitting in and they’ll be asked to provide reinforcements for the big league club.”
Wagner, who’s in his sixth season with the organization, has a modest career batting average of .268. But 2009 was a microcosm of his career.
In 42 games with Portland, he hit .301 with 23 RBI and a .410 on-base percentage. But in 43 games with Pawtucket, his averaged dipped to .214 with three home runs and 20 RBI.
“Offensively, I don’t think he’ll ever do it,” said an American League scout whose territory includes the International League. “Whether it be hitting for average or power, it’s not going to happen for him.
“I have seen an arm that’s a hair below average. But if I had to take one guy up to sit on the bench and only play 30 games, I’d take Brown. But Boston would take Wagner. In reality, there’s not much that separates them.”
One stat that could separate them encompasses Wagner’s ability to throw out base stealers.
At Portland last season he threw out 62 percent (18-29) of would-be base stealers while at Pawtucket he threw out 36 percent (16-44).
Given the current state of Boston’s catching, those are percentages the Red Sox would pay a king’s ransom for considering opponents are stealing bases with impunity.
Brown also isn’t a slouch when it comes to throwing out base stealers.
At Pawtucket last season, he threw out 30.6 percent (26-85) which was fourth-best among qualifying International League catchers.
“Originally I thought two years ago he would be a backup in the big leagues because of his ability to be a catch-and-throw guy,” said the scout. “He has a good release time – 1.92 – which is better than you get out of Martinez (Martinez’s release time has been clocked at 2.1 which is considered below average and which also is where his accuracy ranks).
“In 2008 he had everything you need to be a defensive catcher. His bat was going to hurt him and not allow him to be an every day catcher. Last year I thought he might still get to the big leagues (Brown did make a seven-game cameo appearance with Boston). But I thought they were regarding other people higher than him – including Wagner.
“I thought he could be adequate if all you wanted was defense,” continued the scout, “and, at worst, he could be an emergency backup. He’s what we call in Triple A ‘insurance.’”
Brown, whose batting average in 2009 dipped to .264 from .290 in 2008, along with a concurrent drop in slugging percentage from .471 to .329, knows what he has to do to remain in Boston’s favor.
“I just want to be consistent at the plate which I wasn’t last year,” he said. “I had a couple of good weeks to get my average up. But, obviously, I hope the power comes back this year.
“But, ultimately, I’m a catcher first and if my defense gets me to the big leagues, I’ll be happy.”
Wagner, for his part, feels the need to make a mental adjustment is paramount if he hopes to wind up in Boston.
“It’s one of those things where if I hit one really hard and don’t get anything for it then I try that much harder or swing harder,” he said. “You just can’t play the game being so intense. Unfortunately, I’m a pretty intense guy between the lines. I like to play with the little bit of hair I have on fire. But I have to learn to have the body on fire while, mentally, have the game nice and slow.
“Whenever you play around big league guys, like I did in spring training, you can see how they’re very good at that. Now, I’ve got to learn how to transfer that to wherever I’m playing.”
That brings us back to Exposito and maybe Federowicz – whose status could depend on what Boston decides to do with Martinez, Varitek and David Ortiz.
“If Boston thinks it can bring up Exposito to Pawtucket in July and August and next season he starts in Pawtucket and is ready for the big leagues – even for a late call-up in September, then they live with what they have,” said the scout. “But if they have any doubts at all, or if Martinez isn’t going to catch, maybe they don’t renew Ortiz and Martinez becomes their D.H. Then, you go outside for a catcher.
“But knowing their philosophy – and they’ve become big working their farm system – they’ll say ‘We’ll be okay because we can get it out of our present Triple-A crop or our prospects.’
“The other question that comes up is what if you put Joe Mauer on Boston,” continued the scout. “With pitchers not holding on runners and release times being slow, is a stellar catcher going to perform in a stellar fashion for Boston?”
Good question, indeed.
Lovullo knows how he would answer that question and Mauer wouldn’t be part of his answer.
“Defensively, Dusty is major league-ready for me right now,” said Lovullo. “He’s got a great setup and stance. He’s got great poise and a great demeanor behind the plate. But both Dusty and Mark do a great job of blocking (pitches in the dirt) and receiving. They both have arm strength that’s good enough to throw out any type of base runner.
“Defensively, they’re able to control the tempo of the game in every, single situation because they’re the only player that has their face toward the entire diamond.
“They’re very close,” added Lovullo. “But both are capable of going up at a moment’s notice and helping Boston.”