Jason Varitek is something of a legend in Boston.
He's caught more games than any other backstop in Red Sox history. He's caught an ML record four no-hitters. He knows how to handle Tim Wakefield's knuckleball.
But most importantly, Varitek is the team captain, joining Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice as the team's only official leaders over the last 87 years. It was under his leadership and guidance that the Red Sox finally broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 and again in 2007.
But while he's dynamic in the clubhouse, he's never been great on the field (only once surpassing 4.0 WAR in 14 seasons), and while there's still some life left in his bat (seven homers, .871 OPS in 34 games this year), the consensus is that the 38-year-old catcher is nearing the end of his rope.
In this slideshow are the five best candidates to replace V-Tek as Boston's future catcher and captain, either from within the organization or as possible trade/free-agent targets.
There may never be another player quite like Varitek, but there are certainly some good players to whom the torch could be passed.
Catcher is perhaps the Achilles' heel of the Red Sox' deep farm system. Still, the fact that Exposito is one of Boston's consensus top-two backstops says something about his potential.
Exposito broke out in a big way in 2008, whacking 21 homers and 68 RBI with an .838 OPS with Single-A Greenville and High-A Lancaster.
SoxProspects.com says he has, "a long follow through and a swing that generates a lot of lift on the ball." Also noted are his "strong arm" and "good instincts."
On the leadership front, Exposito has also shown potential. His outgoing nature and bilingualism make him a popular clubhouse figure, and SoxProspects calls him "a model citizen and teammate."
Unfortunately, Exposito has regressed significantly since; in 85 games so far this year, he's hitting just .255 with six bombs and a meager .717 OPS. And that "model citizen" spiel is a recent development, given that he was suspended for all but nine games of the 2007 campaign for what MLB.com called "disciplinary reasons."
Don't look know, but Miguel Olivo has surpassed Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, and Victor Martinez as the best catcher in baseball.
Olivo's .313 average, .538 SLG, .904 OPS, and .384 wOBA would all be tops among ML catchers if he had enough at-bats to qualify, and despite his lack of playing time he's the best backstop in terms of WAR (3.2) and Stolen Base Runs Saved (seven) while placing second in RBI (43) and third in homers (12).
Say what you want about Olivo's success, but the power is legit—he quietly mashed 23 homers with the Royals last season, and this year's .225 ISO is actually a drop from his 2009 mark (.241). He's got good wheels too, and he is the only catcher with more than 50 at-bats to have a positive speed score (5.8).
I don't know much about his leadership skills, but Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd called him a "player of character" when Colorado signed him this winter. Oh, and this is the second year in a row that he's caught for a young pitcher in the midst of a surprising breakout (Zack Greinke last year, Ubaldo Jimenez now). Just some food for thought.
Of course, Olivo turned 32 last week, and one has to wonder how long such late-blooming success can last, especially for a catcher. And while the Rockies theoretically could decline his $2.5 million option for 2011, it doesn't seem like he's going anywhere anytime soon.
Take a look at these numbers: .467/.531/.873 with 53 homers and 207 RBI. That's what Ryan Lavarnway did as a sophomore in 55 games at Yale in 2007, transposed over a 162-game season.
While the numbers he's posted in roughly two seasons' worth of minor league at-bats aren't nearly as eye-popping, there's plenty to get excited about here. He's popped 37 homers and 61 doubles in 215 games across four levels, good for a .503 SLG and .221 ISO.
Perhaps even more impressive is his plate discipline. He's got an overall career walk rate of 12 percent, and his numbers actually rise with each promotion; five games after being called up to Double-A Portland, he's already taken three free passes.
SoxProspects.com praises his "soft glove and decent arm," as well as his intelligence (He went to Yale, remember?). It also calls him a team leader.
The biggest knock on Lavarnway (aside from being a prospect with only five games of Double-A experience under his belt) is his defense behind the plate. But even if that doesn't improve, it could be a worthwhile trade-off.
The 2008 NL Rookie of the Year seemingly fell off everyone's radar last year when he suffered a sudden and BABIP-induced season-long collapse.
Well I've got news for you: Geovany Soto is back and better than ever.
Keep in mind that when I compared Olivo's numbers to the game's qualified catchers, Soto didn't have enough at-bats either. If he did, his .412 OBP and .403 wOBA would rank third in the NL at any position, behind only Joey Votto and Albert Pujols. Take a minute and think about the fact that every other player in the NL is worse than Geovany Soto.
Ready to have your mind blown even further? This season, Soto's walk rate has shot up to 17 percent. That would make him the second-most patient hitter in baseball, behind only Chipper Jones. Not Youkilis, not Berkman, not Dunn—Soto.
Not that he doesn't have his downsides; he's not much of a clubhouse leader, and his defense leaves something to be desired. My response: So what? Go back and read those last two paragraphs again.
Why might the Cubs let him go? Because they don't use him well. Soto's primary replacement, Koyie Hill, appeared in 83 games last year and has already seen action in 39 contests in 2010.
No, just kidding.
Exposito and Lavarnway are exciting options for the future, and Soto could obviously be put to good use in Boston, but the natural and rightful heir to Varitek's throne has already started behind the plate 87 times for the Red Sox.
Victor Martinez has already firmly entrenched himself as a fixture in the Red Sox's lineup. He's got a .289/.344/.480 slashline with nine homers in 66 games to date, and that's in an injury-plagued, down year.
Much has been made of V-Mart's less-than-stellar arm, and many pundits have questioned how long he'll be able to stay behind the plate. But it's not as bad as people say (his 19 percent caught-stealing percentage is actually an improvement over last year's 14 percent mark).
Anyway, Varitek is one of the worst defensive catchers of his generation, so it's not as though V-Mart is a downgrade.
But the most important thing about Martinez is his presence. If any New Englanders have any doubts about his leadership ability, take it from an Indians' fan: You couldn't ask for a better guy to have in the dugout.
He didn't have a "C" on his uniform, but he was the Tribe's captain in everything but name. The period of mourning that swept through Cleveland's clubhouse after he was traded wasn't because the team had lost its best player, but it was because the Indians had lost their best leader and friend.
Martinez is fiercely loyal to his teams; he was publicly dismayed when he learned he was leaving Cleveland and has expressed a strong desire to re-sign with the Red Sox in the offseason.
Boston would be wise to keep him around.