Catch and release: Bard let go

Kottaras likely to back up Varitek

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 19, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - For the second time in as many attempts, Josh Bard's tenure with the Red Sox has ended suddenly and not well, at least for the catcher. Three years after Bard was shipped to San Diego after it was determined he could not catch Tim Wakefield's knuckleballs, it was again determined Bard cannot catch Wakefield - or won't catch Wakefield.

Instead that job will be assigned to George Kottaras, as general manager Theo Epstein said yesterday, "It's his job to lose right now," after Bard was placed on unconditional release waivers.

"Our young catchers are doing a really good job in camp," Epstein said of Kottaras, 25, and Dusty Brown, 26. "George in particular did a nice job with Wakefield the other night. Once he showed he could handle Wake, we decided that was the direction we're probably going to go in."

Not only will Kottaras be Wakefield's personal catcher, he will also spell Jason Varitek. With Varitek turning 37 in less than a month, the Sox plan to get him more rest than he has gotten in the past.

"He's had a good camp," Epstein said of Kottaras. "He looked really comfortable catching Wake the other day [Friday against the Yankees], which shouldn't be a real surprise because he has good hands, he's very comfortable catching [another knuckleballer, Charlie] Zink in the minor leagues."

Even though Zink and Wakefield have vastly different knuckleballs, there is experience there for Kottaras. He has been using a bigger mitt to catch Wakefield, making the transition from his glove to his throwing hand trickier.

When he caught Wakefield Friday, Kottaras had one passed ball, and had two runners steal on him. He's prepared for both of those eventualities.

"I'm not saying it's a walk in the park," Kottaras said last weekend. "You just try and relax. You start getting out of synch and that's when you start having a difficult time. I wouldn't say it felt like normal. It's different because Wake's a little different. But that's him."

The decision to cut ties with Bard came yesterday because of his contract. By releasing him yesterday, the Sox have to pay only one-sixth of his nonguaranteed $1.7 million salary. The team will end up paying approximately $283,333, rather than one-fifth, as they would have had Bard lasted past today on the roster. The entire amount would have been guaranteed if Bard made the Opening Day roster.

In his first stint with the Red Sox, Bard could not get a handle on the knuckleball. He had too many passed balls early in the season and the team traded him to the Padres (along with righthander Cla Meredith) in exchange for Doug Mirabelli. It's the second straight year the Sox have cut a veteran catcher in spring training. Last season the Sox went with Kevin Cash over Mirabelli.

Wakefield is scheduled for a start today at the minor league complex and will be caught by Kottaras.

While Bard was hitting .429 in six games, and Kottaras is hitting .286 in 10, the Sox like the younger catcher's power potential. Plus, as Kottaras was out of options, the Sox either needed to find a spot for him on the 25-man roster, make a trade, or risk losing him to another club.

"He's got some life in his bat, a good knowledge of the strike zone," Epstein said. "He's not going to hit for a high average, but between his walks and his power, he still manages to bring something to the table offensively."

Epstein, while praising the young catchers in the organization, did not rule out a future trade. The most-discussed targets are the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero and the Rangers' Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

"We always have our eyes out to see if we can bring in someone that's an upgrade," Epstein said.

Adam Kilgore of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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