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If you asked me who is the most important player on the Red Sox, at first glance, I'd say Jason Varitek. Varitek's injury in 2006 coincided with the team's total collapse, and every Red Sox fan knows of his legendary preparation and how we believe that translates into the team's success.
At the end of the season, Varitek will become a free agent, and the Red Sox have a monumental decision on how to handle that. "Strength up the middle" is more than a cliche', as we realize its truth in baseball, basketball, football, checkers, chess, and practically any other competition. Sure Brazilian soccer fans and Scrabble players know the value of the edges, but baseball aficionados know what they know.
Can any of us take a dispassionate look at "The Captain." Let's try.
- Varitek has backstopped two championship teams in the past four years.
- He produced a .795 OPS, 51 home runs, and this included an .841 OPS and 33 home runs on the road.
- He also had an .870 OPS and 9 homers against the Yankees
- He had 326 strikeouts in 1270 at bats, 25 percent, give or take.
- He's caught no-hitters by four different pitchers.
- The Red Sox have no immediate replacement in the minors
- If David Ortiz has been the soul of the team, then Varitek has been the heart.
- His salary is over 10 million dollars a year
- We can only speculate that he will accept nothing less than a three year deal (cf. Mike Lowell)
- He's 36 years old and has a lot of catching 'mileage' on his tires
- He's mired in the worst slump of his career and looks awful at the plate
- After excellent OPS in April and May, his June OPS was .381 with a .122 average
- He is striking out at a 28 percent rate and this increased to 30 percent in June
- Currently he is projecting at less than 3 batting Win Shares for 2008 (extrapolated)
- His Win Shares rating for the past 5 years...19, 19, 8 (injury), 15, 4 with an extrapolated three year average of 15, 14, and 10. As they say on Wall Street, "the trend is your friend, until it ends."
- Scott Boras is his agent
- The Red Sox have several prospects showing promise (George Kottaras, Mark Wagner)
- Fan's eye view? Only 44 percent of ESPN Rotisserie players have Varitek on their squad (yes, a very different metric, but data nonetheless)
Dugout Central looks at some catchers who played into their mid-30s and beyond and how they fared, noting 1200 games as something of a landmark for productivity decline.
The Sox have plenty of time to determine whether Varitek has simply worn out or whether this is just an aberration within a productive career. They simply have to project what he is likely to bring to the table over the next several seasons, versus the costs, and the substitutions possible, a complex economic problem that managers wrestle with daily.
But we, like they, must ask the question, "whither Varitek"?