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03/13/08 6:46 PM ET

Red Sox release catcher Mirabelli

Surprise move opens door for Cash to assume backup role

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In a move that general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona both described as tough, the Red Sox released longtime backup catcher Doug Mirabelli before Thursday's exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

"It's not a fun day," said Francona. "It's tougher on Dougie. We don't enjoy those types of meetings. When you're in this position, there are days you have to have those meetings. He did a lot of things for us. We acknowledge that. We still have to make decisions as you go and [do] what you think puts the organization in the best light."

Though backup catchers don't get much attention in most baseball cities, the situation with Mirabelli was unique in that he had been a master at corralling the knuckleball of Tim Wakefield.

But after several weeks of internal debate, the Sox came to the conclusion that Kevin Cash will be better equipped to handle all aspects of being the team's backup catcher than the 37-year-old Mirabelli.

"I think the staff felt pretty strongly that Cash was prepared to do a better job, and that led to the tough decision today to let Doug go," Epstein said. "He's done a lot for this franchise over the years, even though it's been in a backup role. He probably had an impact that exceeded the role. He certainly contributed to two championship clubs, so we have a lot of respect for him and it was tough to let him go today."

This isn't the first time the Red Sox have parted ways with Mirabelli. In December 2005, he was traded to the Padres for Mark Loretta.

For the first month of the 2006 season, Josh Bard struggled mightily to catch Wakefield's knuckleball and was traded to the Padres for Mirabelli on May 1 of that season. In fact, Mirabelli was given a police escort from the airport and arrived just in time to catch Wakefield in a Fenway win over the Yankees.

This time around, however, the Sox feel they have a successor who can handle Wakefield. With Mirabelli experiencing leg woes last August, Cash caught Wakefield for four starts and worked well with the knuckleballer.

"There's no getting around it, that was a concern," Francona said. "Any time we do something ... they've been together a long time. We went and spoke to [Wakefield] as soon as we thought we could. We wanted to alert him to it. It's a big deal to him. We certainly understand that.

"Just having Kevin Cash in this capacity, he's proven he can catch Wakefield," continued Francona. "They'll get some time now to work together before we leave, also."

Mirabelli was supposed to start for the Red Sox in Thursday's game, but was scratched about an hour before game time, leading to rampant speculation that he was on his way out. That speculation proved to be correct.

Dusty Brown replaced Mirabelli behind the plate for Bartolo Colon's Grapefruit League debut.

The Red Sox re-signed Cash to a Minor League deal during the offseason. In January, they re-signed Mirabelli to a one-year contract worth $550,000.

A right-handed hitter, Mirabelli was acquired by the Red Sox on June 12, 2001, after starting catcher Jason Varitek had fractured his right elbow.

In the ensuing years, Varitek and Mirabelli formed a relationship that was close both on and off the field.

Mirabelli, once an occasional threat at the plate, declined sharply from an offensive standpoint over the past few seasons.

In 2007, Mirabelli hit .202 with five homers and 16 RBIs in 114 at-bats.

Mirabelli has played in 566 games in his career, hitting .231 with 58 homers and 206 RBIs.

But Cash -- a career .167 hitter -- doesn't figure to be an upgrade from Mirabelli offensively. The Red Sox made it clear that defense was the reason for the switch.

"His defensive execution has been really good," Epstein said. "I think we knew a lot about that, but seeing him here in Spring Training continuing to call a good game, continuing to receive well, throw well, block well ... And he's very into the advanced scouting part of the game and working with the pitching staff. He's impressed the coaching staff with his ability to do those things."

By the time the clubhouse had opened after the game, Cash, Wakefield and Mirabelli were all gone for the day and unavailable for comment.

"We try to do the right thing for the organization," Francona said. "We have a lot of respect for what Dougie has done. Just, again, we try to do the right thing for the organization."

In this case, the right thing was telling a familiar face -- one who had become as much of a fixture as a backup could be -- that he was no longer needed.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.