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02/20/10 3:58 PM EST

Varitek catching in uncharted waters

Sox's captain staying positive as new role evolves for 2010

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For a moment, it seemed as if nothing had changed. Done with his work on Saturday morning, Jason Varitek was heading toward the clubhouse when he happened upon a group of expectant fans.

They called out his name, begging for autographs. They posed for pictures. And they proved, through anecdotal evidence, that Varitek just may be the most popular backup catcher in baseball.

This is how his career has evolved: on Saturday, for the first time in a dozen seasons, Varitek officially entered Spring Training second on the depth chart. He is still the captain -- Red Sox manager Terry Francona confirmed that much -- and he still has a chance to contribute to the club.

But he has become a supporting character.

"I just look at myself as a catcher," Varitek said. "I don't know any other way to do it. How it all pans out, I don't really know."

Victor Martinez is the starter now, a superior offensive player who should have a significant impact on the 2010 team. Varitek will be nothing more than a part-time backup, spelling Martinez every now and then and providing leadership from the bench.

Though the Red Sox have not announced any sort of catching rotation, it's unlikely that Varitek will start behind the plate more than once or twice per week. And at this point in his career, he is not a strong enough offensive player to start anywhere else on the diamond.

Neither Varitek nor the Sox are discussing any further details of the arrangement. Both sides will simply let camp play out and see what happens at the end of it.

All that's clear is that Varitek is no longer tops on the depth chart -- though finding other ways to contribute may not be too difficult.

"If his playing time changes a little bit, I don't see his role diminishing," Francona said. "He's a very strong influence on our team and he always will be."

Even in his least productive full season as a pro, in which he hit .209 with 14 home runs, Varitek helped the Red Sox's pitching staff produce a 3.87 ERA in his starts -- compared to 4.35 overall. He may not have the same ability that he did five years ago, but Varitek still possesses the knowledge and awareness needed to help a pitching staff thrive.

He also has not lost any of the leadership abilities that earned him the captainship last decade. And so Francona said that Varitek should keep that role, despite the fact that he is no longer a regular player.

"That will never change in my opinion," Francona said. "I think Tek's kind of a special guy. He's certainly earned the right to wear that 'C.'"

Still, this is somewhat of an awkward situation for a player who is used to being the starter. Varitek did get a taste of his new role late last summer, helping Martinez learn the nuances of the pitching staff after arriving in Boston and taking over the starting catcher's job. But things were less defined back then, with Martinez sometimes starting at first base and Varitek still playing a central role on the team.

Now, Varitek is not sure how things will work. He entered camp as he usually does, prepared to assume as much of a role as the coaching staff is willing to give him. With an expiring contract, he is unsure of how many more years he will play, telling reporters to "ask me at the end of this one." And he is holding out hope that he will be able to catch regularly this summer.

But Martinez is the starter, and so barring injury, Varitek will sit. He will need to find other ways to contribute.

"Maybe it will open up more communication with Tito and the teammates," he said. "I try and do that anyway, but any way I can help. Sometimes you get bored sitting there watching. You figure out more ways you can help.

"I know I might be a little bored. But that might be a good thing. We'll see."

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