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02/14/09 5:25 PM EST

Trio looking to catch on behind 'Tek

Bard, Kottaras and Brown to battle it out for backup job

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In a Red Sox camp in which hardly any roster spots are up for grabs, the backup catching position bears watching. The job of backing up Jason Varitek is there to be had, and three men should stage a heated competition that might not be decided until close to Opening Day.

The most known commodity of the group is Josh Bard, who is back after spending nearly three seasons with the San Diego Padres. Then there is the prospect tandem of George Kottaras and Dusty Brown, who formed a productive platoon at Triple-A Pawtucket last year.

"Josh Bard is certainly the veteran of the group. We have some history with him, we know him," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "You have Dusty and George that have been together in Triple-A. George is out of options. We definitely need to take the six, seven weeks that we have down here and try to get a better understanding of where we are with all three of those guys. That's probably the best I can give you today."

It is a multi-faceted job, which makes the evaluation process a little harder for Francona, catching instructor Gary Tuck and the rest of the staff.

Not only does that catcher need to be able to handle an entire staff effectively -- particularly if Varitek sees some reduction in his playing time -- but there is also that whole matter of handling Tim Wakefield's knuckleball.

Doug Mirabelli and Kevin Cash both did an excellent job of working with Wakefield over recent years, but the Red Sox are now looking for a little more versatility from Varitek's backup. Not only do they want defense and leadership, but also a little offense.

"I think what we need to do is not let that get in the way," said Francona. "We certainly understand that whoever catches Wake has to be able to catch it. Saying that, the backup catcher needs to be able to do some other things also. We'll try to remember that."

Bard, who held the role for the first month of the 2006 season, was abruptly traded from the Red Sox last time around because of his struggles handling Wakefield. However, Boston general manager Theo Epstein has since admitted the trade was a mistake, just as Bard said he didn't have the maturity necessary at the time to handle the adversity that came his way.

"In Spring Training, I handled Wake fine," Bard said. "Then we got a couple of days off before the season in Texas, and when I got there, I started watching some film of Dougie do it. And it was tough, because Dougie was kind of a short-armed guy and we're different style catchers. I'm not going to get too much into mechanics, because, to me, it's really something in the past. I could talk about 2006 until I'm blue in the face. I didn't catch Wake the way I needed to, and I need to get that done."

After going to the Padres, Bard found himself as a hitter, batting .338 in 2006 and .285 the following year. But injuries hurt last year, as Bard sunk to .202 in 178 at-bats.

Though the 30-year-old Bard was signed as a free agent on Jan. 2, the deal is non-guaranteed. Not that this is a new phenomenon for Bard.

"There's so many different factors involved. I just try not to think about that kind of stuff and let my play out on the field really speak for itself."
-- George Kottaras

"It's funny to me, because this is the same contract that I've signed the past two arbitration years," Bard said. "I think people have made a big deal about the non-guaranteed part. The last three contracts I signed weren't guaranteed until April 1, so it's not different for me. I'm coming in expecting to be the guy and going in and playing hard, but ultimately, I know that with any team, the best players are going to play and you've got to play good."

Kottaras is the man the Red Sox acquired from the Padres for David Wells on Aug. 31, 2006. Kottaras made enough development strides last year to get a callup to Boston in September.

At Pawtucket in 2008, the left-handed hitter clubbed 22 homers and drove in 65 runs. But if Kottaras doesn't make it on the Major League roster out of camp, the Red Sox would have to sneak him through him waivers to keep him in the system.

"A lot of things can happen," Kottaras said. "There's so many different factors involved. I just try not to think about that kind of stuff and let my play out on the field really speak for itself."

However, the competition is a big enough deal for Kottaras that he will give up his spot on Team Canada's World Baseball Classic roster so he can give the Red Sox as much evaluation time as possible.

"It's a big Spring Training for me, so I don't want to leave and give up something," said Kottaras, who is 25. "I'd like to represent Canada, but I'd like to do what's best for myself right now also. [The Red Sox] pointed out that me that staying here would be a better situation for myself."

Things have always come easier to Kottaras offensively than defensively, but his work with Tuck last September did a lot for his confidence with the glove.

Just like Brown, Kottaras is no stranger to the knuckleball, having caught Charlie Zink at Triple-A. Both catchers hope to gain comfort with Wakefield in camp, be it in side sessions or exhibition starts.

"If one of these guys in our camp wants to step forward and prove they can be that guy, that would be great."
-- Theo Epstein

Brown made big strides last year, impressing the brass with his defense throughout Spring Training. In fact, when the Sox went to Japan to open the season, they brought along Brown as an extra, though he was not on the roster.

"It was awesome," said Brown. "It was really a great compliment to get to go to Japan with the team. I think being in that position was great, letting them see even more of me. I think it definitely kind of put me in a different spot. I'm definitely on people's radar more [than before]. I think with each camp, you get more and more of a look. I think the year that I had last year will help me get a pretty good look this year."

After Brown reported to Pawtucket, he blossomed at the plate. The right-handed hitter finished with a .290 average, 12 homers and 55 RBIs. However, Brown was disappointed that his defense dropped a little in 2008, and he vows to regain his form in that area.

Though Epstein continues to explore opportunities to acquire a "catcher of the future" from another organization, he is open-minded about the situation.

"If one of these guys in our camp wants to step forward and prove they can be that guy, that would be great," said Epstein.

Added motivation?

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't," Brown said. "I want to be that guy. I want to show them that they don't need to go somewhere else."

So the battle is officially in session for Boston's catchers, both for 2009 and going forward.

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