If the Red Sox front office decides to look for an alternative to the current catching platoon of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek, one of the primary options in the minor league system right now is Pawtucket backstop Luis Exposito, a 24-year-old native of Miami.
Boston drafted Exposito in the 31st round of the 2005 draft, out of Champagnat Catholic School in Florida. He did not sign with the club following the draft, but instead enrolled at St. Petersburg College for the 2005-2006 school year, played the entire 2006 college season, and earned All-Conference honors during the 2006 campaign, while at the same time garnering the attention of major league clubs scouting for the 2006 draft. Reports indicated that he would have been one of the top few catchers selected in that draft, possibly a second-round pick. At that time, however, Boston retained Exposito’s draft rights up through the 2006 draft, and managed to sign him to a $150,000 deal two weeks before losing those rights.
A large-framed catcher with tremendous raw power, a strong arm and excellent instincts, Exposito impressed with his defensive abilities with short-season Lowell in 2006, but then missed most of the 2007 season after being suspended for disciplinary reasons.
“I missed a big part of [that] year, but in [the end] it made me that much better of a person and a better ballplayer,” said Exposito. “It also strengthened my contact with God. It was a huge lesson learned -- to be sitting out from baseball for such a long time, but ... I matured ... and I came back more prepared and in better shape. I feel the Red Sox stuck with me and that they kept seeing something special in me.”
Exposito’s offensive skills really blossomed over the next two seasons, and he began to refine his raw power. Between stops in High-A Lancaster, High-A Salem, Double-A Portland, and Mesa of the Arizona Fall League in 2008 and 2009, he hit a collective .295 AVG/.336 OBP/.464 SLG, placing himself among the top catching prospects in the system. Perhaps more importantly, however, was that there were no additional disciplinary issues, and by all accounts Exposito worked himself into being a model citizen and teammate.
In 2010, Exposito returned to Portland and hit a few speed bumps, both on offense and on defense. On offense, it appeared that opposing pitchers were able to pick up on Exposito’s struggles with advanced breaking pitches, and it took him some time to make improvements with his pitch selection. However, he still managed to end the season with a respectable line of .260/.339/.416, with 11 home runs in 473 at-bats. On defense, despite his plus raw tools, scouts were quick to point out Exposito’s need for more effort in the areas of game-calling, throwing accuracy and ball-blocking. While the stats reveal that he did struggle with ball-blocking -- he had 14 passed balls in 85 games behind the plate in 2010 -- they also show that he threw out 38 percent of would-be base stealers in 2010, which is well above average.
Heading into 2011, Exposito earned a spot on the 40-man roster, which comes with an automatic invitation to major league spring training. In seven Grapefruit League games, he hit just .100/.250/.200 with the big club, but he came away with some valuable lessons.
“I watched how the major leaguers handled themselves, learned how they go about their business and get things done,” said Exposito. “They work hard and the main goal is to win.”
Then came a big day toward the end of spring training. On March 18, 2011, Exposito and his girlfriend had their first child, and on that same day he found out that he would be assigned to Triple-A Pawtucket -- a promotion after spending a year-and-a-half in Double A.
“Having a child definitely changes your outlook of life. It’s been awesome man, she's beautiful,” said Exposito, who has since focused his time with the PawSox on improving his game-calling.
“I'm just working hard and trying to guide the pitching staff in the right direction," he said. "I'm working for them as much as possible, focusing on really separating the offense and defense and being a leader behind the plate. I want to show them I can run the staff, that I can handle a season of handling veteran pitchers. To me, the most important thing is being there for nine innings and really focusing in on other hitters and how we’re going to pitch to their strengths and weaknesses.”
One thing that has helped Exposito’s game-calling is his ability to speak both Spanish and English fluently.
“It's definitely helped,” said Exposito. “It probably helped more at the lower levels where some of the guys don't know English at all. In the end, a pitcher needs to feel comfortable out on the mound and I think it raises their comfort level to be able to speak their main language with me -- especially when they're on the mound and I'm trying to settle them down.”
Offensively, the 24-year-old is off to a tepid start, hitting .222/.300/.389 through April 24, but he’s working on making the difficult transition to Triple-A.
“Pitchers up here have a little bit more command of their off-speed stuff,” said Exposito. “You get behind in the counts and they make better pitches up here. But I’m just sticking with my plate approach day-in and day-out, looking to get a good pitch to hit and getting a good swing on it.”
Altogether, Exposito undoubtedly recognizes his areas of need -- game calling and ball-blocking abilities on defense, as well as his plate discipline and making more consistent contact at the plate -- and he seems poised to put in the necessary work in those areas. Until those improvements are actually implemented, Exposito probably isn’t ready for a permanent promotion to the bigs, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll develop into an everyday major league catcher, a backup, or a career minor leaguer. For now, he’ll just continue to grind in Pawtucket, knowing that he’s just a phone call away from the majors.
“I just need to continue to play and make it hard on the front office to make decisions -- and continue to work hard every day, take care of the small things, and pay attention to the details," he said. "I just want to go out and play every day and get as much experience as I can to be able to go to the next level.”
Mike Andrews is the Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com and a special contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Chris Hatfield of SoxProspects.com contributed to this column. Matt Huegel of SoxProspects.com contributed to this column.