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Trio of backstop prospects catching on

08.27.09 at 6:31 pm ET
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The Red Sox just may have better catching than we thought.

Since acquiring Victor Martinez on July 31, the Sox now have two All-Star catchers who figure to be under Boston’€™s control through the 2010 season. In addition, the team will have some decisions to make regarding George Kottaras, who was placed on the DL on August 1 with with a lower back sprain and has played his last nine games in Pawtucket. Amongst all the bodies in the system, who is the team’s catcher of the future?

‘€œMark Wagner,’€ says a source within the organization with what can only be perceived as the utmost confidence.

Of course, that source within the organization happens to be one Mark Wagner himself, and unfortunately for the 25-year-old, it’€™s not that simple. Looking at the system as a whole, Wagner isn’€™t the only minor-league catcher jumping off the page. In fact, he may not even be Boston’€™s catching prospect. With both Double A Portland’€™s Luis Exposito and High A Salem’€™s Tim Federowicz also making great strides, the spot’€™s future is uncertain to say the least.

In short, Wagner brings to the table great game-calling ability, a plus pop time, a streaky bat, and outstanding confidence. Exposito brings size, outstanding defensive abilities, and a bat that has hit for average (.290 over the last two seasons). Additionally, Exposito brings a level of professionalism uncharacteristic of someone who was suspended for nearly all of the ‘€™07 season for attitude problems. Federowicz, like Wagner, calls an excellent game, has a gun for an arm and has surprised Boston with offensive growth.

What makes the emergence of the catching promise at nearly every level so special is that many had diagnosed catching as an organizational weakness prior to the season, and though none of them are of Joe Mauer/Matt Wieters/ Buster Posey caliber, all three are graded out as eventual major-league catchers. This represents a departure from a pre-season understanding that Boston was very thin at the position.

‘€œI look at Boston, and they don’€™t have a Joe Mauer sitting there. Not that anyone does,’€ an A.L. scout told WEEI.com’s Alex Speier in November. ‘€œDo I think the Red Sox have an everyday catcher (in the minors)? Not that I saw.”

The one man who might know the three players best happens to be a former catcher himself. Chad Epperson, who is currently managing the Salem Sox, has coached all three of the young catchers. Once a catcher in the Sox system himself, Epperson has been able to get a sense of what each of the three has to offer at a stage in their careers when they are still raw.

‘€œI’€™ve had them all at the High A ball level, so you get them in that year where they’€™re still green, but going in the right direction,’€ Epperson said recently of the trio.

Of the three, the catcher who could be headed in Yawkey Way’€™s direction soonest is obviously Wagner.

‘€œHe’€™s very driven,’€ Portland manager Arnie Beyeler said of his former backstop. ‘€œHe was one of the hardest-working guys on the team. Day in and day out he gets his work done and does things. You can’€™t teach that. He’€™s got a great work ethic and he’€™s got a lot of ability and a lot of skills, and that’€™s why he’€™s out of [Double A].’€

Wagner is indeed out of Portland and is currently experiencing enhanced competition of Triple A, but is doing so perhaps later than he would have hoped. After hitting .321 with 14 homers at High A Lancaster in 2007 and starting last season in Portland, one would think that the catcher’s stay in Double A wouldn’t last longer than a season. However, his defensive skills and bat progressed at seemingly different speeds, resulting in an uncharacteristically low average of .219 and a second crack at Double A to start the ’09 season.

Wagner’s second go-round in Portland was all that both Wagner and the Boston front office could have hoped for. Down was the strikeout percentage (from 19.8 to 13.8) and up were the batting average (.219 to .301), walks (9.7% to 14.9%), on-base percentage (.303 to .410), and slugging percentage (.363 to .477).

With the promotion to Pawtucket, an initial drop-off in offensive production is to be expected, but Wagner’s struggles have been prolonged to 33 games since his June 29 PawSox debut. Wagner hit both of his two homers in the same game and is hitting .209 through Wednesday night at the Triple A level. Despite his offensive struggles with the bat, the nature of his position makes it easy to look for other tools of equal importance.

“The thing that stands out about Mark Wagner is the quickness of his release,” said Pawtucket Manager Ron Johnson earlier this month. “He’€™s very, very quick with his throws to second base, very accurate, threw out a high percentage of runners at the Double A level and has done a nice job with us, so he’€™s got a lot of good things going for him.’€

If and when his offense does pick up, as it has following struggles in the past, Wagner could provide the Red Sox organization with a legitimate catching prospect who few thought they had entering the season. Johnson, who pegged Wagner as a ‘€œgap-to-gap doubles guy,’€ is impressed with the catcher’€™s bat potential.

‘€œI like his swing,’€ Johnson said. ‘€œI like everything about the kid right now.”

Apparent is the high praise from his manager, and given his energy and easy-going personality, there isn’t much not to like about Wagner. However, Wagner’s priority is getting all 13 of the team’s pitchers to like him before anyone else. Wagner touched on this in late May, while he was still in Portland, saying that a system that prides itself on grooming excellent pitching also needs “someone that can make that person feel comfortable on the mound every single time out.”

Given his ability to throw runners out and the normal inclination of catchers to focus more on base-stealers, Johnson applauds the emphasis that Wagner has placed on game-calling.

‘€œThat’€™s an understanding of your job,’€ Johnson said of Wagner’€™s priorities. ‘€œI think the hardest thing to deal with, with young catchers, is to get across to them that actually, their throwing is last. The feel for your pitcher, running a game, calling a game, the body language, the confidence that you give off, the calm that you give off. Whether the situation is good, or going bad, those are all big things. Those are the learning aspects to me, at this level, when you get here and the major leagues that you really have to focus on.”

Indeed, Wagner’s stress on game-calling has made many people’s jobs easier. Not only have his abilities aided the pitching staff, but they’ve shown promise that project to the majors. Having seen plenty of the Lakewood, California native, Epperson saw early on that Wagner’s prowess behind the plate could advance to the point of him earning a full-time job in Boston. Now that Wagner has come as far as he has, Epperson’s assessment has proven to be dead-on, with hope for the future remaining.

‘€œGame-calling to me is like a power hitter,” Epperson said. “It’€™s the last thing to come. [Wagner'€™s] done very well for himself and he’€™s going in the right direction. You could tell he was going to catch for a long time and he’€™s going to get his shot.”

What exactly Wagner will be able to contribute at the Major League level remains to be seen. He will never be a Varitek or Martinez from an offensive standpoint, as he has become less of a power hitter as he has progressed through the minors. Both of his homers thus far at the Triple A level came in the same game and he only hit three dingers in 188 at-bats with Portland this season. As can especially be seen by his Sea Dogs numbers this year, Wagner has been able to supplement power with average and an improved ability to reach base, and should he be able to produce a great enough fraction of this season’s Portland numbers one day in the majors, the Red Sox will have gotten a tremendous return on their ninth round pick in 2005.

As Wagner tries to work out of his current funk despite being the system’s most polished catching prospect, Exposito and Federowicz are far more than cherries on the proverbial catching sundae. As of Thursday morning, SoxProspects.com had Wagner (rated as the team’s 21st-best prospect) sandwiched between Exposito (16) and Federowicz (22).

Exposito, a Florida native, entered the season as the system’s “wild card” at the catching position, but has since emerged as a stud both at the plate and behind it. A 31st-round draft-and follow in 2005, Exposito was given a $150,000 bonus that the Sox felt was justified almost entirely by his defense. His offense has been a pleasant surprise, to say the least.

After hitting .274 to begin the year in Salem, Exposito has handled what is considered the most drastic transition for a catcher — the leap from High A to Double A — with apparent ease. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound backstop is currently hitting .354 with the Sea Dogs — this after anticipating a tougher time adjusting as a hitter.

“Catching is just, you know, catch the ball and call a good game and read swings and stuff,” the 22-year-old Exposito said on August 8. “[With] hitting, you’€™ve got to really deal with a lot of nasty pitchers up here. They control everything they throw.”

This is in no way to suggest that Exposito is somebody who views catching as an in-between-at-bat hobby. Asked whether he was a great hitter who catches or a great catcher who hits, “Expo” displayed an ear-to-ear grin in responding, “I’m a great catcher who hits.”

Though a player’s tools are often measured by what he can bring physically, Exposito’s bilingual upbringing has also proven to be advantageous as a catcher. Exposito, who had to rack his brain to try to remember which language he learned to speak first, has been able to cover plenty of ground when it comes to communicating with both English- and Spanish-speaking hurlers.

“That’€™s a big plus, knowing that the pitcher’€™s on the same page as you,” Exposito said. “No matter the language, you can speak to them, either Spanish or English, so it’€˜s always a good thing.”

For what it’s worth, Exposito caught promising lefty Felix Doubront at the Futures at Fenway game this month. The Venezuelan-born Doubront speaks only Spanish.

While his size, defensive tools, and good-natured personality are all currently working to his advantage, it wasn’t always smooth-sailing for Exposito. The suspension that halted his playing career early — which was meant to teach the catcher to “not [make] it about himself so much,” according to a source — could have worked against the Sox and disgruntled the backstop. In the end, however, the move clearly worked out for the best. Epperson should know, considering he managed him the very next season.

‘€œI think [the time off] was good for him,” Epperson said. “I don’€™t think you’€™re always going to get Pedroias ‘€” you know, guys that just roll right through the system. The bulk of the guys you get are always going to have some kind of thing that they need to work on off the field, whether it’€™s attitude, whether it’€™s mound presence, whether it’€™s being able to handle failure in a professional manner.”

Exposito has embraced a change in his attitude that may not have been reached had he not been given the wakeup call early on. It is for that reason that the catcher seems to view ’07 as more of a stepping stone than a lost season.

“It’€™s made me be grateful to be playing everyday, and want to work hard and do the right thing,” Exposito said.

Asked whether a dramatic change was apparent following the suspension, Epperson agreed and noted that there were “no issues with [his previous attitude problems] whatsoever [in Lancaster or Salem], and there’€™s none where he’€™s at right now in Double A.”

While Epperson can comfortably look back at Wagner and Exposito and reminisce about the potential that he saw before they moved onto higher levels of competition, the manager still has his hands full with Federowicz.

Like Wagner, Federowicz utilizes a quick pop time that has ruined the nights of many a baserunner. Epperson said that Federowicz’ pop-times are ‘€œconsistently below 1.9′€ and are “very rarely” in the two-flat territory. For a point of reference, the manager described the 22-year-old’s pop time as “pretty identical” to that of Wagner, but noted that Federowicz has a stronger arm.

‘€œIf you’€™re going to watch this kid throw, you’€™d better not blink,” Epperson said. “If you’€™re going to watch his footwork and expect to watch the throw, you’€™d better be on your toes, because he is quick and accurate. I mean, this guy loves to throw. He loves to back-door guys at first base, and people don’€™t realize how valuable that is when you’€™re able to have a guy back there to control the running game.

‘€œWe always try to teach our pitchers to be 1.3 [seconds] or less to the plate, to give our catchers an opportunity. With [Federowicz] back there, these pitchers can be 1.5. That’€™s very valuable when you’€™re talking about a runner that’€™s going full-speed at that point of time, and he’€™s able to make up for it.’€

It seems no matter the speed of the runner, they’re pushing their luck by straying from the bag with Federowicz. In only 34 games catching at Salem, Federowicz has thrown out an astonishing 16 baserunners. That’s almost one runner gunned down every other game.

After hitting .345 in Greenville for his first 55 games of the season this year, Federowicz has slowed down offensively since his promotion to Salem. He’s hitting .241 with three homers, but like Wagner, it’s the whole package that is looked at given the position.

At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, Federowicz is certainly not the big target that Exposito is behind the plate. However, what he lacks in size he more than makes up for with his arm. Also, similarly to Exposito, Federowicz was not drafted for his bat, but has delighted the Sox with his offensive development and contributions, especially in Greenville.

Comparisons between Federowicz and Exposito may be a bit unjust, given that of the top three catching prospects, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum size-wise. However, it was hard not to compare the two when they split time earlier in the season. Epperson referred to the pair as the “two-headed monster,” and while it was certainly a suboptimal situation for two young players who were looking for as much playing time as possible, Exposito and Federowicz were able to strengthen a friendship that was formed in spring training.

“[Splitting time] wasn’€™t the situation that we wanted,” Federowicz said last week, “but it was good that we got to catch up a lot and spend about a month together and just hang out and become better friends.”

Exposito isn’t the only former teammate that Federowicz is tight with. As a freshman at North Carolina in 2006, Federowicz had the pleasure of catching a junior right-hander who threw upper-90′s gas named Daniel Bard. Though Bard left after that season to sign with the Red Sox, the current Boston setup man texted Federowicz to congratulate him and welcome him to the organization after the Sox selected the catcher with a seventh-round pick in 2008.

Though they’ve done it under the radar, the Red Sox have set themselves up to be in pretty good shape moving forward at the catching position. Even when Varitek retires, the team has many options. They could re-sign Martinez long-term, throw a truckload of money at Mauer should he hit free agency, look for a trade (Miguel Montero could always be revisited), or put their faith in one of their three catching prospects. At a position of relatively weak stability throughout the league, the Red Sox have reinforcements, thanks in large part to their scouting. Just ask Johnson.

‘€œOnce again, [Sox Director of Amateur Scouting] Jason McLeod. He’€™s the man. Every time I see these guys come through, I think about the scouting department, and you just tip your hat.’€

Read More: Chad Epperson, Daniel Bard, george kottaras, Jason Varitek
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