Sox’ catching prospects are being well-received

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / March 24, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Gary Tuck breathes the word out with a whoosh of air. “Wow,’’ he said.

Luis Exposito’s name has just been mentioned, as Tuck discusses the young talent the Red Sox have assembled at catcher. In the past couple of years, they have gone from an organization with nothing behind the plate in the minors to one with multiple prospects, of which Exposito appears to be the most promising. That’s key, because the Sox have no major league catcher under contract for 2011.

That might all change, of course. They might sign Victor Martinez to a contract extension. Or they might not, leaving them to find a replacement for both their starting catcher and their backup. The organization certainly would prefer to bring a prospect up slowly, letting him learn behind a veteran. There’s a chance they have the perfect situation for that next season, depending on Martinez and depending on the development of some of the young talent.

And while there is potential in Mark Wagner and Tim Federowicz, Tuck truly shows his excitement when he speaks about Exposito.

“He’s as exciting a player as I’ve coached for a long time,’’ said the Sox bullpen coach. “Physically strong, mentally strong, smart, retains. We spoke about his presence earlier, his leadership, obviously he has power with the bat, unbelievable power with the arm.

“He’s a pretty special guy.’’

Unfortunately for the Sox, however, the expectation within the organization is that Exposito won’t be ready for 2011. Federowicz certainly won’t be. The best chance lies with Wagner, a catcher of extreme confidence, of great throwing ability, but one who struggled to hit in his stint with Pawtucket last season (.214 average, .351 slugging in 43 games). And he is far from a lock to be ready in just a year.

“He needs to play,’’ Tuck said. “He needs experience at Triple A. He needs at-bats, needs games, needs to be in situations.

“He’s knocking on the door, but there’s a lot of knocks on the door. Some knocks are higher than others.’’

Even if they don’t necessarily have anyone prepared by next season, the Sox did see significant development in their minor league catchers this past year.

“They have all handled themselves very well, and they certainly are learning a lot getting to work with one of the best, if not the best, catching instructor in the game,’’ director of player development Mike Hazen wrote in an e-mail. “We feel confident that one of our younger guys will get opportunities in the next 12 months to make an impact at the [major league] level with continued improvement.’’

Still, the Sox hardly have a single can’t-miss prospect, even as the hyperbole grows about the catching depth.

“You can put your head on the pillow, and know you have three or four candidates,’’ said Chad Epperson, who managed Exposito in Salem last season and is now the minor league catching coordinator.

Or, as Tuck said, “This is just a personal opinion: In the 30-something years I’ve been doing this, this is the best group of young and old, experienced catchers I’ve ever been around. Exposito to Wagner, obviously the two All-Stars at the top. Federowicz. It’s the best.’’

That might be overstating the reality, though the excitement about Exposito and Federowicz is palpable. Hazen has praised Exposito as having some of the best power in the minor league system. That power is the allure, the dream of combining a catcher with defensive ability with the potential to hit a home run every now and then, makes those in player development salivate.

“I darn near cried the day he had to go back to play the minor leaguers,’’ Tuck said.

There are, of course, areas in which the catchers need to improve. Exposito — whom Tuck calls “a Coke machine on wheels’’ — is still green behind the plate.

“He tries to get creative a lot on his throws, trying to get more on it when he doesn’t need to,’’ Epperson said. “Offensively it’s the same thing, he tries to do more. He’s such a strong kid; [it’s] getting him to understand that staying within himself he’ll be under control.’’

Federowicz, for his part, is deemed advanced mentally, especially for a catcher beginning just his second full minor league season. As Tuck said, “Federowicz can do everything behind the plate, everything.’’

Again, that might be going a bit far. There is still quite a bit of development needed from the trio. And there’s no guarantee that any of them will be good enough to be backups in the majors, let alone starters.

But to listen to those in the organization, especially those tasked with coaching and teaching the catchers, there is significant talent there — whether or not it ever will turn into performance at the big league level.

“Very rarely have I ever come to a camp where I was like, ‘He’s got a chance, he’s got a chance, and he’s got a chance,’ ’’ Tuck said. “Not a chance, I mean a strong chance to be very, very good, successful championship catchers.’’

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