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February 28, 2010 at 12:03 PM

2010 Organization Outlook: Catchers

The Red Sox’ catching depth has blossomed in recent years, and the position is now one of the deepest in the organization, particularly at the upper levels. Last season, Mark Wagner recovered from his disastrous 2008, Luis Exposito further emerged as one of the top power prospects in the system, Tim Federowicz wowed with his defensive tools, and Ryan Lavarnway had arguably the best offensive year of any Red Sox minor leaguer.

As we will list in each edition of the Outlook, here’s how the position breaks down, sorted by the highest level at which each player saw significant time last season:

MLB: Victor Martinez#, Jason Varitek#
AAA: Dusty Brown, Gustavo Molina, Mark Wagner
AA: Juan Apodaca, Luis Exposito
A+: Tim Federowicz, Will Vazquez
A: Ryan Lavarnway, Michael Thomas
SS-A: Dan Butler, Chia-Chu Chen^, Sean Killeen, Christian Vazquez
Rk: Carson Blair, Leonel Escobar, Maykol Sanchez
DSL: Oscar Perez, Derwin Pinto
YTD: Jair Bogaerts
Moved off position: Aly Gonzalez (DSL), Jon Still (AA), Ty Weeden (A+)
Gone: Carlos Maldonado (AAA), John Otness (AAA)

The Lead Story: We can already say with some certainty how things will shake down in the upper minors. Martinez is the starter in Boston, Varitek the backup. Wagner and Brown will split catching duties in Pawtucket, with the possibility that each could see significant time at DH as well, not unlike the Brown-George Kottaras platoon of 2008. Exposito will be the starter in Portland, with Apodaca backing him up, but note that “starting” at catcher generally means playing four of every six games or so – no Red Sox caught more than 87 minor league games last year. The full-season A-ball picture is a bit murkier. Federowicz will almost certainly begin in Salem, but will Lavarnway join him? The latter led the system in home runs, extra-base hits, slugging, and isolated power in his first full season; his bat is surely ready for the Carolina League. His glove, however, could be another story. More than 36 percent of his at-bats came at designated hitter in 2009, and he needs playing time to develop his receiving skills. The Red Sox are willing to be patient with catchers as the Red Sox have exhibited with Dusty Brown, who entered the organization in 2001 as a draft-and-follow. Add the team’s stated belief in the importance of Lavarnway staying behind the plate and the odds favor him beginning 2010 back in Greenville, with a midseason call-up a distinct possibility. It is also of no small importance that no catcher behind Lavarnway would be ill-served by beginning the year in Extended Spring Training, even if only for a month or two.

Below the Fold: After the “big five” full-season catchers, there is a muck of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time players. The only player from that large group below Greenville to find any success at the plate in 2009 was Christian Vazquez, but a promotion from the GCL to Lowell ended that. This is not to say that none of those players could possibly hit – these are not very large sample sizes – but there should be healthy competition in Extended Spring Training for roster spots in Lowell and potential playing time in Greenville. There are some unique situations in this group, particularly Blair, who began his conversion to catcher last year, and Vazquez, who may be playing his way off the position. If Lavarnway begins the year in Greenville, Thomas, who saw nearly all of his innings at that level last year, would likely be his backup. After Lavarnway’s nearly inevitable midseason promotion – or if he breaks camp in Salem, at the start of the year – then likely two players from the group of Butler, Killeen and Sanchez will platoon with Thomas for the Drive. Barring the selection of a college catcher in the draft, Blair and Chen would be the front-runners for innings in Lowell, with Vazquez perhaps splitting time between third and catcher and whoever else is not in Greenville fighting for innings. The GCL should see the state-side debut of Oscar Perez, who last year was sent to the DSL from Extended Spring Training in a pseudo-demotion so that he could play every day, although he did not hit at all there either. Escobar is young enough that a repeat of the GCL would not be terrible, so he and a draftee will probably split time as Perez’s backup.

Sidebars: Molina will fill the “third catcher” role in Pawtucket. If both Brown and Wagner are healthy to start the year, the veteran should come down with a “right calf strain” at the end of camp and go on the DL, only to miraculously heal if there is an injury or promotion … Jon Still’s days as a catcher appear to be over. He caught just one game last year, instead serving as a full-time designated hitter/backup first baseman … It appears that Ty Weeden will also be moved out from behind the plate. Scouting reports have wondered whether he would stick at catcher ever since he signed, and a series of leg injuries seem to have dictated the switch before he could even prove himself defensively … A player with Will Vazquez’s versatility (he primarily catches and plays both infield corners, but has seen some time at second base) tends to stick around. If Weeden is indeed done catching and Lavarnway starts in Greenville, the backup catcher job in Salem is Vazquez’s to lose barring an Independent League signing. Since he can play other positions, he does not have to go on the phantom DL to serve as a team’s third catcher, so he should stick even when Lavarnway arrives in Salem … Aly Gonzalez got most of his playing time at third base last year. We will see this year if that was in deference to Oscar Perez or if he has actually been moved from behind the plate. He may share catching duties in the Dominican with Aruba native Jair Bogaerts, who will be making his pro debut … Derwin Pinto will fight for a roster spot after three non-descript DSL campaigns.