Friday, March 14, 2008

Surprised by Mirabelli's Release?

You should be. This is not earth shattering news, but if you are intrigued, then you are paying attention. Doug Mirabelli has been the Sox primary backup catcher since 2002. He is very competent defensively, and is better than most at handling the knuckle ball, which allows the Sox to get the most out of Tim Wakefield, while providing regular rest for Jason Varitek. Mirabelli has never been a great hitter, but has been occasionally clutch and does reasonably well for a part time player. He became a free agent after 2007, but was re-signed this winter to a one year $550,000 contract. So, what changed since they signed the new contract?

Well, Doug's batting has been slowly declining since 2004, but he batted a reasonable .273 in six games this spring. Also, his age has been slowly increasing. Doug is 37 years old this year. That is not ancient, but it makes sense that the Sox would want to get younger at catcher. With Varitek turning 36 next month, they clearly need to be grooming the catchers of the future. My guess is that is exactly what is happening, but I do wonder why they signed Mirabelli to a new contract - wouldn't that have already been apparent? Well, perhaps they wanted to make sure someone could catch Wakefield, and Doug was their guy until someone else stepped up. So, who's stepping up? Who is the guy that has proven to them that they no longer need Mirabelli? Tim Wakefield has started 3 games so far this spring. For every inning of those three starts, his catcher has been Doug Mirabelli. If someone is taking his place, wouldn't you want to see that person handle Wakefield in at least one game this spring?

You may have read and heard that his successor is apparently Kevin Cash. If that is true, that is nothing more than a short term fix. Kevin Cash is not the catcher of the future for the Sox. I like the guy, but he is 30 years old, and only occasionally has he shown big league potential. He failed to stick with the Blue Jays, playing with them from 2002 to 2004 when he went to Tampa Bay. He had one spotty year with the D-Rays in 2005 and spent all of 2006 in the minors. When you can't make it with the Devil Rays, you've got to wonder. He was a decent fill-in last year for the Sox when Mirabelli was injured. But, how many catchers suddenly become big league material starting in their 30's? So, if Kevin Cash starts the season in Boston, it will be purely to be a backup catcher for this year, and the Sox must feel that he'll give them a little more than Mirabelli would have.

But, look further. There are two other young catchers coming along in the Sox system, Dusty Brown and George Kottaras. These guys are young, 25 and 24 years old respectively, and are looking pretty good, both of then batting over .400 this spring. So, do the Sox have hopes that one of these guys will take Mirabelli's place? Not sure, especially since neither of them has caught Wakefield in a game this spring. More likely, these guys are potential guys to take over for Varitek as the starter in a couple years. If that's what they hope, they won't waste their playing time sitting on the bench and solely catching the knuckle ball. So, the more they like these guys, the more likely they'll be in Pawtucket this year.

So, like I said, if you are intrigued, you are paying attention. I think the most likely situation is that they simply felt Mirabelli's skills, mostly due to age, have declined, and they want to break the mold of having a knuckle ball specialist as a catcher. They want more flexibility than that, and are willing to sacrifice a few extra passed balls to get a younger, hotter catcher as a backup, and Kevin Cash may be able to provide that. There is one other possibility that would not surprise me. It is conceivable that there is a trade pending that could being a new catcher into the picture. But, you would think they'd hang on to Mirabelli until the ink was dry first.

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