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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Red Sox Special @ V-Mart

The BoSox may have made the most surprising acquisition of this trade deadline when they landed Victor Martinez for the package of Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone, and Bryan Price. Much has been made of the fact that the deal makes Terry Francona the operator of an unconventional merry-go-round of five proud veterans at six positions. That quintet of Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, and Jason Varitek has combined for a somewhat astonishing 17 All-Star appearances, seven times have finished in the top five in MVP voting, and three of them own Gold Gloves (and Youkilis will probably make it four at some point in his young career). They'll make a cool $41.5 million this season.

To Francona falls the delicate task of telling one of these men each day that their name won't be on the lineup card. It's not all bad news. After all, with the exception of Youkilis, all are 30-years-or-older, so they could probably use a little rest. The BoSox manager will also be blessed with a great deal of variety as the quintet is comprise of one lefty, two righties, and two switch-hitters. Here are their platoon splits:

Mike Lowell (R) - vRHP: .294/.320/.450, vLHP: .315/.384/.584
Victor Martinez (S) - vRHP: .307/.373/.471, vLHP: .259/.363/.466
David Ortiz (L) - vRHP: .222/.320/.407, vLHP: .230/.294/.451
Jason Varitek (S) - vRHP: .223/.332/.406, vLHP: .250/.370/.539
Kevin Youkilis (L) - vRHP: .307/.408/.568, vLHP: .330/.464/.614

As you can see, only Varitek and Lowell show significant variations, and, as they are also the most senior citizens of Red Sox Nation, they will probably be getting the most days off. In truth, whether it happen now, in October, or at the beginning of next season, this trade probably means that, as John Kruk has suggested, Captain 'Tek is headed for a back-up role. Maybe he'll finally learn to catch Tim Wakefield. There are a few reasons for this. First, and foremost is, of course, that Victor Martinez is a legit middle-of-the-order hitter. Varitek wasn't V-Mart's offensive equal at any point in his career, but, while he's improved dramatically over his 2008 campaign, Varitek's current skill-set makes him undoubtedly the easiest out in the Red Sox lineup (bye-bye Julio Lugo and Nick Green), especially against right-handed pitching.

The faithful will say that 'Tek makes up for his offensive woes by being one of the game's greatest behind the plate. And this assertion, often followed by superlatives about "game-calling," is backed up of a 3.73 Catcher's ERA, best in the American League. His defense, however, does have one glaring flaw. While Varitek was never mistaken for a long-lost Molina brother, he threw out a respectable 24.7% of basestealers over his first eleven season. This year he's "gunned" down a mere 14%. This decline is contemporaneous with an much-noted increase in stolen base attempts around the league. As a result Varitek (and the Boston pitching staff, to be fair) is on pace to give up 120+ free bases in 2009. To put those numbers in perspective: Yadier Molina has a CS% of 41.0% and will fall victim to only around 30 successful attempts this season, despite playing in 15-25 more games.

It is no longer acceptable to ignore a catcher's throwing ability. It has been a growing trend since Mike Piazza tempted managers with the thought that they could get 30 HR and 100 RBI a season from their backstop. But Piazza never had to deal with those runnin' Rays. From 1993 to 2005, roughly the length of Piazza's catching career, only 27 players stole 50 or more bases and nobody stole more than 75. Moreover, only two teams, the '93 Expos and the '96 Rockies, stole more than 200 bases. The '96 Rockies were the only team to accomplish that feat from 1994 to 2006. Assuming the Rays maintain their current pace, both the '09 Rays and the '07 Mets will have joined the 200 SB club in the last three seasons. A dozen players have produced 50+ SB seasons in that time, assuming that the five new members from '09 maintain their current pace.

In the two game series between the Rays and Red Sox this week, the Rays nabbed six bases off Varitek in seven attempts. The only man he threw out was the not so fleet-footed Carlos Pena, which only further proves that Tampa Bay felt as though they could take extra bases with impunity.

Victor Martinez doesn't have the best arm in baseball, but in 2008 he threw out 37.1% and 32% in 2007. Though his legend may not be as thoroughly ingrained in the minds of the BoSox faithful, Martinez also has the reputation of a great "game-caller," and his career Catcher's ERA is 4.41 (Varitek's is 4.21), despite having managed some pretty poorly pitching staffs.

Martinez will be an improvement over Varitek both offensively and defensively, but Varitek will no doubt continue to catch two or three games a week (at which time V-Mart will often play first or DH) and this should help keep both of them fresher.

There is also one consideration which should not go unmentioned. Varitek has a player option for 2010. Considering the current market for veterans, it is unlikely he would find a job (or, at least, a million-dollar job) as a free agent with another team. That, and it seems unlikely he would want to leave Boston this late in his career. However, the Red Sox built his contract is such a way that if they were disappointed in his 2009 performance, his base salary would fall from $5 Million to $3 Million with bonuses based on games played ($400,000 for every ten starts past 80). It is very unlikely that the Red Sox will pay more than one of the bonuses in 2010. After all, Martinez has a club option for $7 Million, a steal for somebody of his talent.

We are nearing the end of a BoSox decade, and, fittingly, Varitek, Martinez, Ortiz, Lowell, and Josh Beckett all have contracts that expire at the end of 2010 (by which time J.D. Drew may become the longest tenured Red Sox). At that point, neither Varitek nor Martinez will probably be in Boston's plans, at least at catcher, especially if the trends toward speed and defense in the post-steroid era continue. And, on that note, you should check out the profile of Yadier Molina in this week's ESPN: The Magazine.

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