Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Predicting How the Varitek Situation Will Play Out

Jason Varitek's contract expires at the end of the year. We know this. The question is, what to do with him. If you are in the "Keep Varitek" camp then you probably believe that his leadership and deftness of handling the pitching staff are invaluable assets to the team and things you may not appreciate until they are gone. It's really impossible to quantify the merit of these claims, but if you want to make an argument that there is validity here you can fall back on the Red Sox two most catastrophic collapses this decade - 2001 and 2006 - as each coincided with injuries to Jason Varitek. While in each of these seasons there were other factors - namely other injuries plus in the case of 2001 an absolutely toxic clubhouse both literally and figuratively - in both instances I remember reading and hearing that Varitek's injury was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. How true that is however is impossible to prove. Did they spiral downward after Varitek went down because they missed his locker room presence and handling of the staff or did they spiral downward because in '01 the catching duties were handed off to the Doug Mirabelli/Scott Hatteberg platoon and in '06, Mirabelli and Javy Lopez took over the reigns. I would go with the latter although truth be told, in spot duty in 2001 Doug Mirabelli actually did pretty well posting a 126 OPS+ but Hatteberg that year clocked in at a 78 in 278 ABs to Mirabelli's 141. Meanwhile in 2001 Varitek was working on a career best 123 when he went down. In 2006 it was a different story as his OPS+ of 83 was right in line with his career worst of 82 in 2000 but the aforementioned Mirabelli/Lopez tag team went 52 and 22 respectively. In short, the Sox went from below average at the catcher position to awful and I'm guessing that that fueled their downfall as much as anything else that 'Tek brought to the table.

Long story short, "Keep Varitek" folks will inevitably site his leadership, intangibles, pitch calling, and staff management as the reasons why he should stick around.

On the flip side, there are the people who are ready to give Jason Varitek the Trot Nixon Memorial, "Thanks for the Memories, We'll Always Love You, Now Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out" treatment. This argument is really simple, Varitek is more or less an automatic out every time he gets up and a championship caliber team should not waste ABs on a guy like that. Honestly, I am more or less in this camp. I hate seeing teams keep around way past their prime veterans just because they have "intangibles" and the fans and media love them. Pretty much I am talking directly about Teddy Bruschi and Jason Varitek here who seem to me more franchise mascots than anything else at this point.

Here is the thing though. Jason Varitek's situation is entirely different because he is a catcher and there really are not very many good ones out there. It's not like he plays first base or right field where they can just cut the chord and fill in the blank with relative ease. Right now I do not know where the Red Sox shop for a replacement for him.

As such, here is how I'd like to see them proceed.

1) Gauge their minor league system and the trade market for a league average catcher that they can sign on the cheap. If there is one out there, scoop him up and then offer Varitek the chance to platoon with the new guy at a vastly reduced salary. If this is not appealing to him, he can walk. To me, this is the ideal situation.

2) Pull a Curt Schilling on Varitek and offer him a below market, 1 year contract with a club option for a second and a $1M buyout and see if he goes for it. Hope that he does not, but if he spurns his agent's advice and takes it, it really won't be the end of the world. Still look for his replacement though.

3) Straight up cut the chord.

If the Sox either straight up cut the chord, or Varitek decides to walk, here is exactly how his free agency will play out.

November/December - Moderate interest from a few teams looking to bring in a backup. 'Tex wants to start and wants more cash so he does not sign with anybody.

Late January - Cincinnati, looking to make a free agent splash that will get the media buzzing AND a guy that can potentially help bring along their staff of young, high-ceilinged pitchers swoops in and offers him a 2 year, $15M contract which he accepts.

Spring Training - Peter Gammons writes a glowing article about how he is changing the culture of the Reds and how much the young guys are responding to him. He practically ejaculates while writing the article and goes on Sportscenter 15 times during the month of March, saying the same thing.

Regular Season - Varitek posts about league average numbers for the Reds, a middle of the pack, second division team in the NL. Everybody falls all over themselves to credit Varitek for the "turnaround" (read not last place) without looking at the bounty of young talent on the actual roster. Peter Gammons ejaculates some more and writes 18 more articlse chronicling 'Tek and the Reds.

August - Varitek goes down with a season ending injury.

So that is my take on the Varitek situation. If he does hit the free agent market next winter, I promise you things will go down exactly as I say. Especially the Gammons stuff. Mark my words.


Anonymous said...

Why is everyone jumping off the Captain's ship suddenly?

He is in a slump. Period.

Check his stats before you post something like this! Or just his OPS for that matter:

He had an .843 OPS in September of last year, an .809 OPS in April, and an .913 OPS in May. He fell into a slump in the month of June with a .404 OPS.

He didn't just suddenly hit "the end" in one month - that's why it's called a slump!

As I read somewhere else, before you start cleaning out his locker for him remember that there is more baseball to play and historically his best month is July.

After everything he has done and everything he is to this team, he should be given the pass that is given to Manny for his slump right now and Jacoby for his! Even Ortiz was slumping earlier this season and is out of the line-up now!!

Those guys aren't busy trying to manage a pitching staff in between at bats are they?

Neil Williams said...

I actually keep players baseball-refernce pages minimized whenever I write anything on anybody so I can have easy access to their stats. I tend to avoid monthly splits and instead look at entire season's on the whole.

Varitek's OPS+ last year was 103 - league average. His OPS+ in 2006 was 82 - below league average - and now this year it is at 77 - also below average - and we are half way through the year. Personally, I'd think that his brief blip back to average last year was the exception not the rule. I could be wrong.

Regardless, as you probably read, I said I'd be in favor of signing him on the cheap for next year because there is not much else out there. However, giving him anything more than one gauranteed year given his age, decreased performance, and most importantly the toll catching takes on the body would be a collossal mistake and asking for trouble. Furthermore, I am entirely of the mind that they should not give him money just because he is who he is. If he is willing to take reduced money and years (read 1) to come back to Boston, then that is fine. I'll welcome him back. But if he wants anything more than 2 years and any more than $8M per then I say it's time to cut the chord. I'm not disrespecting Jason Varitek here, I'm just using common sense which dictates you probably don't want to give a multi-year contract to a 36 year old catcher. Call me crazy.