Monday, January 5, 2009

Catcher Remains Sox's biggest Void

For any true baseball fan, the dawn of the New Year is more than just a time to make resolutions. More than anything, it's the time that the countdown officially starts until pitchers and catchers report under the warm sun of Spring Training.
While Red Sox followers gear up for that date -- which is Feb. 12, by the way -- Boston general manager Theo Epstein is still working hard at putting the finishing touches on the 2009 roster.

Mark Teixeira won't be climbing on board after all, but that means that widely respected third baseman Mike Lowell won't have to look over his shoulder worrying about a trade. Instead, Lowell can continue to focus exclusively on rehabbing his right hip with an eye toward being in the lineup on Opening Day.

While the Yankees have invested more than $400 million on Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, this won't be a winter of big spending for the Red Sox.

Epstein recently made a couple of modest investments in starting pitcher Brad Penny ($5 million guaranteed) and catcher Josh Bard ($1.7 million). And earlier in the winter, a big piece of the future was secured, with American League Most Valuable Player Dustin Pedroia signing at six years for $40.5 million.

As for unfinished business, the catching situation remains of utmost importance. Sure, Bard is a good start, with his switch-hitting bat and solid work ethic. But he doesn't figure to be the primary man behind the plate.

Things continue to be strangely silent when it comes to Jason Varitek, who is a free agent after being a member of the Red Sox since July 31, 1997.

It's hard to picture Varitek without the Red Sox, and vice versa, but can Epstein and agent Scott Boras reach common ground?

If not Varitek, then who?

The Red Sox could still go out and get a catcher-of-the-future type, someone who would conceivably work in tandem with Bard.

Miguel Montero of the Diamondbacks, and the Texas duo of Taylor Teagarden and Jarrod Saltalamacchia have been the names most frequently bandied about.

But the Red Sox might have to give up a pitching prospect, such as Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden, to make such a deal a reality, and Epstein has thus far been reluctant to do so.

If all else fails, Dusty Brown and/or George Kottaras -- who filled out a solid platoon for Triple-A Pawtucket last year -- could be given a shot.

Beyond that, Boston's most obvious need is a fourth outfielder. Rocco Baldelli, given his New England roots, right-handed bat and talented skill-set, remains an intriguing possibility. Baldelli recently got a positive report on his health, which indicated the excessive fatigue he experienced in 2008 can be treated.

Beyond those issues, the Red Sox can take heart in having one of the most talented rosters in the game heading into 2009, despite the lack of blockbuster moves in the Hot Stove season.

Between now and Spring Training, the Red Sox will contemplate how best to utilize Justin Masterson, with a return to the bullpen now appearing to be the logical choice. Boston, by the way, could have a dominant bullpen in 2009, with Masterson, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima setting up Jonathan Papelbon.

There is also the shortstop dilemma. Did Jed Lowrie establish himself as a starter or will Julio Lugo- - remember him? -- be given the chance to win his old job back?

And once workouts begin in Fort Myers, Fla., the Red Sox can see for themselves if David Ortiz, Josh Beckett and Lowell have sufficiently recovered from the injuries that limited them late in 2008.

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