We aren't even at the point when free agents can begin signing with new teams, and the Red Sox contingent essentially felt the general managers' meetings were a waste of time. But Jason Varitek's return decided one issue, which allows them to move on to the Jason Bay-Matt Holliday discussions and how best to fill their traditional question at shortstop.
Before Varitek decided to pick up his $3 million option and return at the age of 38 to the Red Sox, the club had explored other options. Kelly Shoppach interested them, and had worked in tandem with Victor Martinez in Cleveland. They thought about Rod Barajas, Gerald Laird and others, but now Theo Epstein is convinced Varitek will go into the season as the backup to Martinez.
The staff thought Varitek's defensive problems at the end of last season stemmed from his workload at age 37, especially given his intensity. The question, however, has been that with his toe-tap and complicated swing, could Varitek hit at all playing once or twice a week? That's before hitting the .157/.489 after the All-Star break.
The Red Sox's reply to that question is that Varitek is a far better hitter with a far simpler swing from the right side. He batted .226 with a .793 OPS from the right side, with an .807 OPS against left-handed pitchers. Of the nine catchers who qualified for the batting title, only Joe Mauer, Martinez and Brian McCann had better than an .807 OPS.
Even though Martinez is one of the rare switch-hitters whose swing is almost exactly the same from both sides, his numbers against right-handers (.316, .866) were better than against lefties (.273, .848), so this could turn into an informal platoon. Martinez could also be used as the designated hitter against left-handers if David Ortiz were to struggle against lefties.
After coming to the Red Sox in the trade deadline deal, Martinez repeatedly marveled at how selflessly Varitek worked with him in his game preparation. Martinez was highly respected in Cleveland for his sense of responsibility with pitchers and his pitch-calling instincts, and the two worked well together.
Having Varitek and Martinez allows bullpen coach Gary Tuck to work with the young Red Sox catchers in spring training. The feeling is that Mark Wagner is close, and his good start in the Dominican (12 games, .294, .890 OPS) has been encouraging. Luis Exposito, who is in the Arizona Fall League, has the most raw tools, and Tim Federowicz is considered by several staff members as a future every-day major league catcher who because of his college experience (three straight trips to Omaha) could blow through the system quickly.
There seem to be several ways the Sox could go at shortstop, although it is clear they want Jed Lowrie to play at Pawtucket, make up for what amounts to a lost season and prove that his wrist will hold up. In the meantime, they could sign Alex Gonzalez at a discount, perhaps add Omar Vizquel as depth, or look at some of the other alternatives. They love Marco Scutaro, but he is a Type-A free agent and unless they get a couple of No. 1 picks from Bay and Billy Wagner signing with other teams, they will be reluctant to part with the draft choice.
Perhaps the most encouraging news thus far this winter has been the play of shortstop Jose Iglesias, a 19-year-old Cuban defector whom the Red Sox signed in July, in his first American experience in the Arizona Fall League. They thought he'd defend, and one National League scout says "He may have the quickest hands I've ever seen. Get a closet for his Gold Gloves."
They knew he could run. But they are also extremely encouraged by his embrace of the cultural assimilation program the Red Sox have in place. Iglesias has worked hard to learn English, and has grasped the complications of coming from the Cuban culture.
Also, he has been hitting. The numbers in Arizona have been good, especially for a 19-year-old with no professional experience--.295, two homers, a .348 on-base percentage, .791 OPS. Now he's still, in one person's words, "hyper," and will have to work hard at his plate discipline. Like so many young Cuban players, Iglesias swings at almost everything.
"What impressed me is that he squares the ball," says an NL scout. "He's not some overwhelmed teenager. He squares the bat on the ball. He shows some pop, and with his speed, if he learns to steal bases, could be a pretty good offensive player."
There has been optimism in the bowling-alley office of the Red Sox baseball operations people that Iglesias could see Fenway Park by 2011. Now, if Lowrie is healthy, he could be a 50-extra-base-hit guy in Fenway, and if Yamaico Navarro is healthy, he is a solid shortstop prospect.
In an organization in which Ryan Westmoreland and Casey Kelly have fronted all the top-ten prospects lists, there is depth at both catcher and shortstop emerging below the surface. No wonder ownership feels so strongly about keeping scouting director Jason McLeod in the bowling alley rather than going to San Diego with Jed Hoyer.