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February 9, 2009 at 3:36 PM

2009 Organization Outlook: Catcher

With Spring Training around the corner, it is time to take stock of what we will be seeing in the Red Sox farm system this season. Our first installment will focus on the catchers.

Obviously, catcher is currently a position of long-term importance for the Sox. Here are the catchers currently in the system, sorted by highest level legitimately reached last season.

MLB: Jason Varitek, Josh Bard, George Kottaras
AAA: Dusty Brown, (Sandy Madera), Carlos Maldonado
Juan Apodaca, John Otness, Mark Wagner
Luis Exposito, (Zak Farkes), Jon Still
Pete Gilardo, Will Vazquez, Ty Weeden
SS-A: Tim Federowicz, Rafael Gil, Ryan Lavarnway
(Carson Blair), Chia-Chu Chen, Maykol Sanchez, Christian Vazquez
Leonel Escobar, Derwin Pinto, Jesus Rojas
Ali Gonzalez, Oscar Perez
Dennis Blackmon, Kevin Cash, Matt Cooney, Hayato Doue, David Ross

In the Bigs: Varitek is the starter, but he may see a cut in playing time, whether based on his performance the last year and a half or to "keep him more fresh". It looks like Bard and Kottaras will battle for the backup spot, since Kottaras is out of options and Bard's contract is not guaranteed. While Brown probably deserves a shot at making the roster, he would have to outplay both Bard and Kottaras by a significant margin, since he has options left and is the only one of the three who can easily be sent to Pawtucket.

The Big Picture:
Exposito redeemed himself last season after missing nearly all of 2007 for disciplinary issues, becoming the system's top catching prospect by a wide margin. However, he is still far enough away that the Sox cannot yet count on him in their future plans. Even if they did, a bridge to him would be needed, as 2011 seems like the earliest realistic arrival for him ... Wagner was the system's consensus top catching prospect last offseason, but a difficult year at the plate in Portland (.219/.304/.363) has knocked him down a few pegs. He did redeem himself a bit at the plate in the AFL, but it's hard to take much from a 59-at-bat sample. With a bounce-back season, he should be in Pawtucket by midseason, and could factor into Boston's plans in 2010 ... It really is hard to see Kottaras and Brown factoring into the Sox' future, other than as backups, without an impressive 2009 campaign from either. The team chose to acquire Ross last August to be the third catcher in September, rather than call up either Kottaras or Brown, although the former did eventually receive a promotion once Pawtucket's season ended. There was talk that the club wanted them to play through Pawtucket's playoff run, but one way of thinking says that if the Sox were really serious about either player, they would have called him up right away and kept Ross in Pawtucket. The team's offseason pursuits of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Miguel Montero, as well as its decision to re-sign Varitek, also do not signify confidence in either Kottaras or Brown in the long-term.

On the Horizon: Perhaps recognizing how thin the system was at catcher at the lower levels, the Sox used their sixth, seventh, and ninth-round picks on catchers in the Rule 4 Draft. Seventh-rounder Federowicz showed good defensive tools in Lowell, while sixth-rounder Lavarnway spent much of his debut shaking off rust from a wrist injury suffered during the college season. It will be interesting to see how both do in their first full seasons, likely in Greenville ... Weeden, who received a $420,000 signing bonus in 2007, struggled a bit with injuries in his first full season, although he did show enough improvement defensively to at least temporarily answer concerns that he wouldn't be able to stay behind the plate. Don't be surprised if he sticks behind in Extended Spring Training for a month or so rehabbing his knee and working off rust while the catching situation shakes out in Salem and Greenville ... The Sox also bolstered their catching at the lower levels through the international route, giving Venezuelan Perez a reported $712,500 signing bonus. He will make his debut in either the GCL or DSL this season at age 17 ... Escobar was a DSL All-Star, posting a .397 OBP although he showed almost no power. He should make his U.S. debut this season, almost certainly in the GCL.

The Rest:
Starting from the top on down: Maldonado is stereotypical Triple-A depth, but had a very good campaign in the Venezuelan Winter League (.328/.422/.496) in nearly the same amount of playing time he got in Indianapolis during the summer ... Madera has not caught a significant amount since 2006, but for some reason is still listed as a catcher on rosters, even as recently as this past winter. Consider him a 1B/DH no matter what your program says until you actually see him behind the dish ... Otness would seem to be headed for his third straight season in Portland, but showed he was a very capable backup last year, drawing positive reviews from the Portland pitching staff. Organizational catchers do have demand due to the scarcity at the position, so players like Otness have value despite the significant chance they never make the Bigs ... Apodaca bounced around the system a bit in his first season with the Sox, but there could easily be a use for him as a backup in Salem, or perhaps Portland ... Farkes, who was converted to catcher by the Red Sox before the 2006 season, played both infield corners and DH'ed more than he caught last year. With the organization's improved catching depth at the higher levels, his days behind the dish would seem to be over ... Still will be in Portland this year. Although he still profiles as a DH/1B, he continues to work on his defense behind the plate. If Wagner is promoted to Pawtucket and Exposito is still in Salem, we still may not see Still take over as the full-time starter in Portland. Even after Exposito was promoted to Lancaster last season, Still caught one out of every three games ... Chen, who received a six-figure bonus when he signed, and Christian Vazquez, the Sox' ninth-round pick in June, debuted in the GCL last year. Neither showed much at the plate in 2008. All three could be in Lowell unless they really impress in XST ... Blair, who received a $200k bonus, worked out at catcher during the Fall Instructional League. A third baseman by nature, there hasn't been word where he will play primarily this year. ... Will Vazquez has utility as a catcher who can play the infield corners and even a bit at second base ... Gilardo, Gil, and Sanchez appear to be organizational players, and could hang back in XST in case of injury. Gil seems to be in real danger of being released after an abysmal season at the plate in Lowell ... Neither Pinto nor Rojas showed much in the DSL backing up Escobar ... Gonzalez was a July 2008 international fre agent and will lkely play in the DSL this year.

So Long, Farewell:
Cash was Tim Wakefield's caddy last season. He signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees this offseason. ... Ross was signed in August to be the September emergency catcher. He signed with Atlanta in the offseason. ... Cooney had the lowest OPS in the system last season. ... Blackmon, an Indy League signee last offseason, requested and was granted his release midseason when he was stuck behind Jon Still and sharing backup duties with Farkes in Lancaster. ... Doue, a Japanese IFA, could not obtain a work visa last season, and was placed on the restricted list. He was released this offseason. ...

MLB: Starter - Varitek; Backup - Bard or Kottaras
AAA: Starter - Dusty Brown; Backup - Carlos Maldonado (or possibly Bard/Kottaras)
AA: Starter - Mark Wagner; Starting DH/Backup C/1B - Jon Still; Backup - John Otness
High-A: Starter - Luis Exposito; Backup - Will Vazquez or Juan Apodaca
Low-A: Platoon - Tim Federowicz and Ryan Lavarnway
XST: Ty Weeden and Pete Gilardo
SS-A: Platoon - Chia-Chu Chen, Christian Vazquez, and a draftee (and possibly Carson Blair)
Rookie: Platoon - Oscar Perez, Leonel Escobar, and a draftee
DSL: Starter - Ali Gonzalez; Backup - Jesus Rojas