The Red Sox’ offseason has been an exercise in plugging small holes. The core of the team is intact and, in terms of the roster, the team has happily recognized that September was more fluke than disease, and are working in filling in the gaps around the important parts — Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, and so on.
Jonathan Papelbon is out, but Mark Melancon is in to fill his spot in the bullpen. Nick Punto replaces the traded Jed Lowrie in the infield. Daniel Bard will shift to the starting rotation.
And, following stops in Cleveland and Tampa, Kelly Shoppach returns to Boston. He also marks the closing of the book on the captain.
The Jason Varitek era came to a likely end when Shoppach’s one-year contract was announced, the former prospect finally replacing the captain, though not the way it was advertised in 2005. Rather than being the catcher of the future, Shoppach has claimed the role of backup catcher, playing behind Jarrod Saltalamacchia, keeping a roster spot warm for Ryan Lavarnway.
It’s a solid move. Shoppach has some pop in his bat and a strong arm, throwing out 41 percent of would-be base-stealers in 86 games behind the plate last year, best in the American League. He won’t cost a lot, and he’ll be a good complement to Saltalamacchia.
But it’s a move that comes with some sadness, as the sturdy Varitek is bumped from second to fourth on the depth chart, and fourth is no place at all for a Major League catcher.
The likely final destination for Varitek in the hearts and memories of Red Sox fans will be as the back bone of the team for the better part of a decade. Behind the plate, he quickly earned the reputation as one of the best game-callers in the league, earning the praise of nearly every pitcher who worked with him. He tirelessly studied pitchers and the tendencies of hitters, and he protected the plate with the vigor of a tank.
The image of him shoving his glove in Alex Rodriguez’s face is iconic; he represented the team and the fanbase standing up to decades of New York oppression, the catalyst that sparked a run to the World Series. A few months later, the captain’s C was stiched on his jersey. Three seasons later, Varitek was the backstop for another World Series champion.
The next three seasons saw Varitek regress, sliding back from a strong offensive force into a pedestrian hitter with signs of power as he battled personal issues and near-constant injuries. In his last two seasons, he embraced a backup role, supporting Victor Martinez in 2010, mentoring Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 2011 and maintaining his sterling reputation as a defensive backstop and pitch-calling wizard.
Now? It’s certainly the end of his playing days as a Red Sock. The team seems to be interested in retaining him in some role or another; whether that’s as a field coach, a scout or some kind of instructor remains to be seen.
But in the coming years, Varitek’s legacy will be cemented. He was a leader, low key and determined, quietly guiding the Red Sox behind the plate and in the clubhouse.