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Kelly Shoppach agreement spells likely end for Jason Varitek with Red Sox

12.13.11 at 11:22 am ET

The writing had been on the wall for some time. Whenever he was asked about Jason Varitek this offseason, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said that he would inform the 15-year veteran if the team decided to go another direction. Now, it appears that the Sox have decided to go in another direction.

According to a major league source, the Red Sox have reached an agreement with catcher Kelly Shoppach on a one-year, $1.35 million deal. (The deal was first reported by Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com.) The contract is guaranteed.

Shoppach, taken with the Sox’ top pick in the 2001 draft, hit .176 (fifth lowest in the majors among the 355 players with 200 or more plate appearances) with a .268 OBP, .339 slugging mark, .607 OPS (325th in the majors) and 11 homers in 87 games with the Rays last season. It marked the third straight season in which the 31-year-old has seen declines in his average, OBP, slugging percentage and OPS since a career-best 2008 season in which Shoppach hit .261/.348/.517/.865 with 21 homers for the Indians.

However, Shoppach had far better numbers against left-handed pitchers. He hit .241 with a .344 OBP, .444 slugging mark, .788 OPS and seven homers against southpaws. Moreover, he threw out 41 percent of potential base-stealers last year, the top caught stealing percentage in the American League.

Shoppach made his big league debut with the Sox in 2005, playing nine games in the majors and going 0-for-15. He was traded that offseason to the Indians as part of the deal that resulted in the acquisition of center fielder Coco Crisp. Shoppach spent four years with the Indians before being traded to the Rays prior to the 2010 season.

The Sox had expressed a desire to have a veteran in spring training who would compete with Ryan Lavarnway for the job of a complement to expected starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Shoppach appears to be that catcher, something that would appear to render Varitek expendable. Moreover, the guaranteed deal for Shoppach also increases the likelihood that the Sox can return Lavarnway to Triple-A so that he can get regular playing time behind the plate to complete his minor league development.

With 15 big league seasons in Boston, Varitek has the fourth-longest uninterrupted Red Sox tenure to start his career of any player in franchise history, behind only Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams and Jim Rice. His 1,488 games behind the plate are the most ever by a Red Sox catcher, and his 190 homers as a catcher are also the most in Red Sox history, surpassing the mark that had been set by Carlton Fisk.

Varitek, who turns 40 in April, hit .221 with a .300 OBP, .423 slugging mark and .723 OPS with 11 homers in 68 games in 2011. He ended up carving out a larger-than-expected role in 2011 when Saltalamacchia struggled early in the season. However, he faded down the stretch, hitting .077 with a .392 OPS and 11 strikeouts in 30 plate appearances in September, and Varitek was unable to play in the season’s final days due to a knee injury.

Moreover, while continuing to receive strong marks for his work with the pitching staff, Varitek continued to struggle in controlling opponents on the bases. He threw out just 12 of 85 potential base stealers (14 percent), the second time in three years that he has had a caught stealing percentage of less than 15 percent. Shoppach would seemingly help the Sox to address that deficiency.

After emerging as the leader of the Red Sox early in his career, Varitek was named team captain when he re-signed on a four-year, $40 million deal with the Sox after their first World Series in 2004. He has since signed a two-year deal, $8 million deal that spanned the 2009-10 seasons and a one-year, $2 million deal to return to Boston for 2011.

But, at a time when the Sox appear to have an emerging starter in Saltalamacchia and another catcher (Lavarnway) who is viewed as being near major league-ready, and in the aftermath of a season in which Varitek’s presence as a leader came under scrutiny given the clubhouse issues that plagued the Sox, the idea that Varitek might be nearing the end of his Sox career became increasingly real.

Now, that moment may have arrived, with Shoppach potentially replacing the catcher who once served as both a mentor and an impediment to his path to the majors. When he was drafted, Shoppach was regarded as the potential catcher-of-the-future who might ultimately take Varitek’s place. A decade later, that outcome appears to be coming to fruition, albeit in unexpected fashion.

Read More: Hot Stove 2011, Jason Varitek, kelly shoppach,
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