BOSTON -- Of all the issues facing the Boston Red Sox this offseason, identifying the team's backup catcher falls well down the list.
David Ross batted .184 this season, which ranked 68th of 84 major league catchers with at least 75 at-bats. His OPS was .629, which was 46th. His WAR came to minus-0.3, which means he had less value than a minor league replacement player. He turns 38 on March 19. Those kinds of numbers lead to an assumption that the Sox will be seeking an upgrade at the position.
Ross even allowed for the possibility, which is why he asked to catch the season's last game Sunday and got emotional when manager John Farrell sent Daniel Butler out to replace him in the seventh.
"It was hard," he said. "[Pitching coach] Juan Nieves got me a little bit. He came underneath and hugged me.
"It was a little emotional because I loved my time here. People here have been amazing to me. There are really, really good people here.
"It could be a lot for nothing, but it's one of those things. It's been a tough year all the way around for a lot of people, and when you come to the end, who knows what the future holds?"
It's understandable that Ross, a free agent, feels uncertain about his future, but his chances of returning to the Red Sox might not be as dim as some think. A club source who will be involved in that decision said the team wants him back -- for reasons that transcend a stat line.
This season saw the emergence of Christian Vazquez as the obvious choice to become the team's everyday catcher and a chance to be one of the game's top defensive players at the position. He might already be there.
Vazquez threw out 51.7 percent of the baserunners (15 out of 29) who attempted to steal on him, the best caught stealing rate for any player with at least 50 games behind the plate since Yadier Molina, the gold standard for major league catchers, threw out 54.8 percent (17 of 31) in 2005. Vazquez's percentage was the best for any rookie catcher since at least 1987.
"I think he's ready and capable of handling that role," Farrell said last month when asked about Vazquez's prospects to start 2015 as the No. 1 catcher. "Christian, in short order, has gained a reputation around the league to be somewhat of a shutdown thrower with the aggressiveness of his throws to the bags. He's a focal point for a team when they're on offense to have to contend with behind the plate."
Ross, meanwhile, experienced a significant decline in the number of runners he threw out this season -- 9 of 41, or 22 percent, well below the 41 percent (13 of 32) he threw out in 2013 and the lowest percentage of his career. But like Vazquez, he still ranked in the upper echelon of major league catchers in his ability to frame pitches, and his game management skills have not diminished in the least.
Assuming he has not gone into irreversible decline physically -- he turns 38 on March 19 -- Ross would seem to be an ideal mentor for Vazquez, who should be good for catching between 120 and 130 games, while still offering the Sox a backup who has the confidence of the pitching staff and can keep the opposition from running wild.
Ross also has been regarded as a positive influence in the clubhouse. He said he believes that's part of his job description, to bring energy to the clubhouse and to the dugout as much as he can. That has its place in winning too, he said.
Ross hit seven home runs in 152 at-bats, which may seem like a modest number until you compare it to Boston's No. 1 catcher in 2013, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit 11 in 373 at-bats for Miami this season, and Boston's No. 1 catcher at the start of 2014, A.J. Pierzynski, who hit five in 338 at-bats split between the Red Sox and Cardinals.
In his meeting with reporters on Monday, general manager Ben Cherington said the Red Sox have not closed the door on Ross returning.
"We're not making any determination right now on catcher, but we're certainly not eliminating anyone either," Cherington said. "David, I think when we signed him two years ago, what we were hoping to have happen with that position mostly happened. He's done a lot for the organization."
Ross made it clear his first choice would be to stay in Boston.
"I hope I get to come back," he said. "This is a special place. The whole environment -- the coaching staff, people in the front office, owners -- they've all treated me with the utmost respect. Even the fans. I think they appreciate the way I play, how hard I play. You bat a buck 80 on a daily basis and you really don't get booed? I've got so much love for this place, this stadium, the city. Hopefully, it's not over."
But Ross also admitted he contemplated the possibility that not only will he not be asked back by the Red Sox, he might have played his last game anywhere.
"Who knows?" he said. "Who wants a backup catcher? Who wants me? A team's going to have to really want what I bring to the table for me. I hope it's not the end. I enjoyed last year so much; I'd like another chance.
"We all can't go out like [Derek] Jeter does. I'm comfortable with what I did. I've been so blessed, with 12 years in the major leagues, to do the things I've done. I've been beyond fortunate.
"If it's the end, I'm OK with that. If not, I'll play as hard as I can."