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To the surprise of Red Sox Nation and likely the front office, Hall of Fame, and Carlton Fisk biographer Ray Buck (author of Carlton Fisk: The catcher Who Changed “Sox”) Red Sox bullpen coach Gary Tuck made some suprising comments: “I think Jason Varitek can catch as long as he wants to catch…I think he can catch at least four, five more years.”
For his part, Varitek played along saying he has “defied odds before.” The sort of longevity Tuck describes would place Varitek alongside Carlton Fisk as the model of catcher durability throughout a career. Assuming he can stay healthy into his 40s at the game’s most physically demanding position, would any team be eager to sign him to catch any number of major league games? It would certainly be hard to imagine Varitek’s time with the Red Sox continuing whether Victor Martinez stays or goes. Varitek himself picked up a player option to remain with the team for 2010 after the Red Sox declined an option of their own to retain the catcher at a higher salary.
The topic of Jason Varitek can be a thorny one among Red Sox fans, many of whom still hope Varitek will return to form and bring more than intangibles to the team. There is no denying how much value Varitek brought to the Red Sox for the bulk of his career. Together with Derek Lowe, he made the Heathcliff Slocumb trade one of the most lopsided in history. Unfortunately, the Varitek who earned the “C” is no longer around.
Varitek has seen his batting line fall to .209/.313/.390/.703 and his percentage of runners caught stealing was well below average. Elvis Andrus, the Texas Rangers’ speedy shortstop known for his glove, hit .267/.329/.373/.702 in his 2009 rookie campaign. For a defensive shortstop, that’s acceptable performance. For a catcher who is not a major defensive contributor, it just isn’t enough.
Varitek contributed greatly to the Red Sox in the first half of the 2000s and during his career, he had five seasons with an OPS over .800. Not suprisingly, three of those came in 2003, 2004, and 2005 as part of the Red Sox offensive juggernauts that stormed across the American League. With Victor Martinez taking over the catching duties, Varitek finds himself without many guaranteed at bats this season. However, Varitek is not without his uses. Even in 2009, Varitek was a value while batting from the right side against southpaws. Hitting .231/.336/.471/.807 is nothing to sneeze at. As long as Victor Martinez is taking the majority of the at bats for the catcher position, the Red Sox should be free to maximize Jason Varitek’s remaining skills.
While most of the talk about potential clubhouse cancers this winter has revolved around Mike Lowell, who has gone from being World Series MVP to a bench player learning first base, Jason Varitek is facing a demotion from captain to backup. Right now, Varitek sees his new role as a chance to extend his career. As we saw with the recently retired Nomar, Manny Ramirez, and Jay Payton, the Red Sox will part ways with a player who is disgruntled if they believe that the team as a whole can improve in the process.
Both Varitek and Lowell are in the last year of their contracts. Both players have been replaced as the starter at their position. Though a good year for David Ortiz could extend Papi’s time in Boston for another year, it is unlikely that Varitek or Lowell will be in town after 2010. Trot Nixon, Nomar, and Curt Schilling all had the chance to end their time and for the most part, their careers, with the Red Sox on a high note. If Lowell and Varitek adjust well to their time on the bench year, they should get the same chance.