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This is the second installment of a series of positional previews that began last week with the infielders. This week, we focus on catchers. The Red Sox enter spring training with four catchers on the 40-man roster: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kelly Shoppach, Ryan Lavarnway, and Luis Exposito.
Salty will be getting the lion’s share of the playing time this season, having the most familiarity with the current pitching staff. Last year was the first in which he played in at least 100 games, and, unfortunately, saw his production decrease as a result. He finished with a .235 batting average, had 119 strikeouts versus 84 hits, and led the league in passed balls with 26. Should those numbers make you cringe, let me warn you that they only get worse from here.
Shoppach returns to the team that drafted him and the team that he debuted with after signing a one year contract with Boston this past offseason. The Red Sox traded Shoppach to Cleveland in 2006 as part of the deal that brought Coco Crisp and Josh Bard to Boston. Shoppach backed up Victor Martinez for two seasons before starting the majority of the Indians’ games behind the dish in 2008 and 2009. While he showed above average power, Cleveland was not impressed with his .214 batting average and sent him packing to Tampa Bay for Mitch Talbot.
It turns out that the Indians sold high, as Shoppach batted a meager .185 over his two seasons with the Rays. But don’t panic; there is one thing that he does exceptionally well – throw runners out. In fact, he threw out the highest percentage in the league of would-be thieves last year. Look for skipper Bobby Valentine to use him as a spot starter against speed teams like Oakland and Tampa Bay, or as a defensive “closer” (à la 2004 Doug Mientkiewicz) to protect one-run leads.
Lavarnway enjoyed a breakout season last year, hitting 34 home runs to go with a .285 batting average between Portland, Pawtucket, and Boston. He also has a terrific arm, bringing to the table a rare combination of offense and defense. Lavarnway will start the season in Pawtucket, but this kid is major-league ready right now. Boston, we may have a franchise catcher.
When I asked Exposito in December if he would return to Pawtucket in 2012, he responded with a hopeful “Working not to be!” However, the chances of Expo playing in Boston this year (other than for the “Futures at Fenway” game) are pretty slim. Exposito took a step backwards in his development last year, batting .242 with 8 home runs over 89 games in his first season in Pawtucket. The Florida native is only 25, though, and could very well get back on track with a strong 2012 campaign as Pawtucket attempts to defend the IL North crown.
Next week: Outfielders!