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Sox Prospects: Insurance at catcher?

At the outset of spring training, the Red Sox are content with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek handling the major league catching duties in 2011. But what type of insurance exists in case one or both of those players goes down with an injury? Beyond immediate depth, is there a starter-of-the-future in the system right now?

As to the first question, the answer is that there are two decent prospects waiting in the wings in Pawtucket, both of whom could probably serve as an adequate short-term backup -- but neither of whom are beating down the doors for the starter’s job just yet. As to the second question, the short answer is that there are no surefire blue-chip catching prospects in the system right now, but there are a handful of players that have the potential to develop into impact major league backstops.

Here’s a quick rundown of those catching options:

Luis Exposito

Age: 24

How Acquired: Drafted in the 31st round in 2005

2010 Stats: .260 AVG /.339 OBP/.416 SLG with 11 home runs for Double-A Portland

2011 Status: On the 40-man roster, three options remaining. Likely headed for Triple-A Pawtucket.

Scouting Report: Offensively, Exposito is an average hitter with decent power and the potential to become an above-average power hitter. He needs to work on improving his plate discipline, which could come with some refinements to his approach. Behind the plate, he has quality tools, including a strong arm and good instincts, but he needs to develop his game-calling ability, throwing accuracy, and ball-blocking skills -- all of which could improve with a concerted effort on the backstop’s part. He’s very personable and a popular teammate, as he speaks English and Spanish very well. Ultimately, Exposito has some starter potential if he puts in the work, but on a team like the Red Sox he projects more as a platoon/backup at this point barring some major strides in 2011.

Mark Wagner

Age: 26

How Acquired: Drafted in the 9th round in 2005

2010 Stats: .205/.255/.315 with 3 home runs for Triple-A Pawtucket

2011 Status: On the 40-man roster, one option remaining. Likely headed back to Pawtucket.

Scouting Report: Wagner is a solid-to-excellent defensive catcher in nearly every respect, but the one area he can use some improvement is framing pitchers for strikes. He is also an extremely hard worker with strong leadership skills. At bat, Wagner shows excellent plate discipline and below-average power, and makes decent-but-inconsistent contact. A streaky hitter, he has shown the ability to hit over .300 for extended periods of time, but has also come in around the Mendoza line during other extended phases of his minor league career. Wagner missed a lot of the 2010 season after having the hamate bone removed from his left hand, but appears to be back at full health this spring. Given his defensive abilities, Wagner projects well as a long-term major league backup catcher.

Paul Hoover

Age: 34

How Acquired: Minor league free agent (Feb. 2011)

2010 Stats: .247/.326/.345 with 3 home runs for Triple-A Lehigh Valley (PHI)

2011 Status: Non-roster invitee, eligible for minor league free agency after 2011. Headed to Triple-A.

Scouting Report: The Sox front office likes to bring in veteran catchers to Pawtucket as major league insurance, such as Gustavo Molina and Carlos Maldonado in years past. Hoover will play that role in 2011, possibly starting the season on the sidelines if both Exposito and Wagner are healthy. A journeyman catcher with experience in five different organizations, Hoover has spent parts of six different seasons in the majors. He’s an intelligent, veteran presence with solid defensive skills and a below-average bat, and ultimately should serve as emergency depth for the major league and Triple-A levels, much like Molina did in 2010.

Ryan Lavarnway

Age: 23

How Acquired: Drafted in the 6th round in 2008

2010 Stats: .288/.393/.489 with 22 home runs for Portland and High-A Salem

2011 Status: Non-roster invitee, eligible for 2011 Rule 5 Draft. Slated for an assignment to Portland.

Scouting Report: Lavarnway has been the best hitter in the Sox system for the past two seasons, this after being one of the best hitters in the NCAA in 2007 and 2008 during his sophomore and junior campaigns at Yale. He shows plus present power, fantastic plate discipline, and the ability to hit for average. All of those tools project to carry over well to the majors. On defense, Lavarnway is still somewhat raw, and he has some work to do to make himself into a passable major league backstop. That being said, the front office has roundly praised the 23-year old as one of the hardest-working players the system has seen in years. But Lavarnway’s ability to improve on defense could be held back by his limited range and stiff reactions. If he’s able to overcome those issues and work himself into an adequate defensive catcher, Lavarnway has the potential to become an All-Star catcher in the mold of Victor Martinez. Otherwise, his bat could still be good enough to carry him as a part-time designated hitter/backup catcher over the long term.

Tim Federowicz

Age: 23

How Acquired: Drafted in the 7th round in 2008

2010 Stats: .253/.324/.371 with 4 home runs for Salem

2011 Status: Non-roster invitee, eligible for 2011 Rule 5 Draft. Slated for an assignment to Portland.

Scouting Report: Only two days older than Lavarnway and selected one round later in the same draft, Federowicz has followed a similar career path to Lavarnway thus far, albeit for different reasons. Federowicz is known more as a defensive-minded backstop, possessing excellent all-around catching tools, including an extremely strong and accurate arm, quick instincts, and solid game-calling ability. Offensively, Federowicz struggles with consistency, can be somewhat pull-happy, and has average power and mediocre plate discipline. He has shown flashes of brilliance -- including the first half of 2009, when he hit .345/.393/.562 in 55 games with Low-A Greenville. But over his minor league career, Federowicz is a .275 hitter. While his bat probably won’t land him a major league starting job, he does have the potential to become a near-average major league hitter with plus defensive skills, and that in and of itself is a fairly valuable commodity.

Dan Butler

Age: 24

How Acquired: Undrafted free agent (July 2009)

2010 Stats: .310/.411/.482 with 7 home runs in Salem, Low-A Greenville, and 2 games in Pawtucket

2011 Status: Minor league camp. Likely headed to Salem to start the season.

Scouting Report: A backup catcher in college, Butler went undrafted in 2009 but grabbed a spot in the Cape Cod League that summer to try to prove he could handle more advanced competition. He impressed on the Cape and the Red Sox took a waiver on him, signing Butler as an undrafted free agent. In 2010, Butler put up an .893 OPS at three levels, the highest in the Red Sox system of any player with 300 at-bats. That being said, he’ll likely need to continue to prove himself at every level to be considered a potential big-leaguer, particularly as he was on the older side for his level in 2010. Butler is average-to-above-average defensively with a slightly above-average arm, nice glove, quick footwork, and solid game-calling abilities.

Adalberto Ibarra

Age: 23

How Acquired: International free agent (April 2010)

2010 Stats: .244/.400/.268, 0 home runs with Salem

2011 Status: Rehabbing in minor league camp.

Scouting Report: A Cuban defector signed to a $750,000 bonus last April, Ibarra is the great unknown right now among Boston’s catching prospects in terms of projection. He played in only 14 games with Salem in 2010, and then underwent surgery to repair the labrum in his right shoulder in October. He will start the 201 season on a rehab track, and expects to be back in game action during the first half of the season, at which point he’ll likely be assigned to Salem. Ibarra is said to have a very strong arm but his defensive skills are quite raw, as he only recently converted to catching. Offensively, he has solid swing mechanics and nice, power potential.

Others

A few other catching prospects to watch at the lower levels:

-- Christian Vazquez, 20, is a solid defensive catcher that was drafted out of Puerto Rico in the 9th round in 2008. He hit .263 with Greenville in 2010, and could be slated for a return assignment to Greenville in 2011.

-- Oscar Perez signed a $712,500 bonus out of Venezuela in July 2008. An advanced defensive catcher who already has a major league body at the age of 19, Perez could be the opening-day starter for short-season Lowell this year.

-- Jair Bogaerts was signed in August 2009 along with his twin brother, Xander, who is not considered one of the top young prospects in the system. At 18, Jair shows a lot of raw potential but failed to impress offensively in the Dominican Summer League in 2010, hitting just .170.

-- Beau Bishop, 17, was just recently signed to a minor league deal out of a New Zealand softball league. He’ll report to Fort Myers this week but isn't likely to debut professionally until 2012. He makes for an intriguing storyline to watch in coming years.

Mike Andrews is the Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com.