Varitek clearly Red Sox's lead catcher, but what about the rest?

Mike Fine

One in a series of stories exploring Red Sox personnel as spring training nears. Today, Mike Fine looks at the catchers.

We all know that the Red Sox feel pretty good about their starting catcher, Jason Varitek, but do you know who their backup is -- at least the one listed on the team's official depth chart?

Doug Mirabelli remains a free agent, and there's a strong chance that his days with the Sox are over, so guess again. Kevin Cash, who did a nice job defensively in limited action last August and September, has been re-signed to a minor league contract. George Kottaras, who was obtained from San Diego for pitcher David Wells in 2006, just isn't ready.

To be sure, Sox GM Theo Epstein has been working on catching issues over the winter, but for now, the guy who's scheduled to be Tim Wakefield's catcher next season is Dusty Brown, a Sox lifer who's been in the minors for seven years. Brown split the 2007 season between Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket, batting .260 with nine homers and 46 RBI in 77 games.

When the season begins, if Epstein can't make a deal, this might be Brown's chance to finally make the leap, although Cash was impressive defensively for the Sox in 12 games last season.

With Mirabelli hurting, Cash was summoned from Pawtucket and immediately showed well, serving as the catcher for Wakefield, the knuckleballer who's been known to make grown catchers cry. Just ask Josh Bard, who had 10 passed balls in seven games in early 2006 before being traded. Cash, though, caught Wakefield five times in 2007 and was charged with only one passed ball. He caught 82 innings for the Sox, but his main problem was the bat. He hit only .111 in 27 at-bats.

The Sox have precious few impressive catchers in their organization, something Epstein has attempted to rectify. He picked up three catchers in last June's draft, plus two undrafted free agents. The top choice was taken on the 20th round -- Dan Milano of Northeastern University, but he missed most of last season in Lowell with injuries.

Epstein drafted 10 catchers in the 2005 first-year player draft. The top pick, second-rounder Jonathan Egan, has a strong arm but has struggled at the plate, and he dealt with injuries last season. He's been leapfrogged by Mark Wagner, who as taken on the ninth round. Last season he batted .313 with the Lancaster Jet Hawks and is rated as a possible strong big-league backup.

Wagner, who had 14 home runs and a .406 OBP, is rated (by as the top minor-league catcher in the organization, at No. 21.

This is important to know because while the backup catcher of the Boston Red Sox might only work every six days, he will likely be handling Wakefield, who is a chore for any player. That's why Mirabelli was so valuable. He and Wakefield worked in concert, and Mirabelli was considered a baseball brainiac who knows the ins and outs of his pitchers just as well as Varitek.

But at 37, Mirabelli has become an offensive liability, and in his last two seasons has been prone to injuries for the first time in his career. Last season, calf and hamstring problems limited him to only four appearances over the final 40 games of the regular season, and he caught just one game in the playoffs.

He batted .202 last season, and since batting .284 in 2004, he has batted .206 (including 14 games with San Diego).

The other option staring at the Sox is the free agent market, but that's not exactly teeming with young, competent two-way talent, either. Available veteran catchers include Sandy Alomar Jr., Rod Barajas, Paul Bako, Alberto Castillo, Mike Matheny, Mike Lieberthal, Johnny Estrada, Kelly Stinnett, Damian Miller and Todd Pratt, but many of these are former frontline catchers who might not be suited to occasional backup duty.

There is a school of thought that Lieberthal, a 14-year veteran with a .274 career average, could be a fit. His career is winding down, and he caught in only 31 games for the Dodgers last season; 60 for the Phillies in 2006. He accepted a $1.1 million contract to play for the Dodgers last season.

One thing is certain: Varitek remains the gold standard for the Sox. According to the Elias Sports Bureau rankings of catchers for 2006-07, he's rated eighth, but he will be 36 on Apr. 11.

Varitek will be in the last year of his four-year, $40 million deal this season, but the man can play and has taken care of himself. Doubtful he will have gone so far downhill that he will not be everything he was last season when he batted .255 with 17 home runs and 68 RBI.

Varitek last season started in his eighth straight opening day game, and before it was over he would come up with numerous big hits. On Aug. 17, after Mirabelli got hurt, Varitek played 17 innings of a doubleheader with the Angels. His season ended nicely with a championship.

Little doubt who'll get the bulk of the work in 2008, but that backup position remains a huge responsibility.

The Patriot Ledger