FORT MYERS, Fla.—If Jason Varitek was defeated by an offseason of seemingly agonizing negotiations, it wasn’t apparent.
The Red Sox catcher spoke on Saturday for the first time since signing a one-year, $5 million deal that includes both a club ($5 million) and player ($3 million) option for the 2010 season. He suggested that the contract that he ultimately received featured what was most important to him: a chance to stay in Boston for as long as possible.
“Ultimately I got what was important to me, which was being able to maintain the legacy and maintain the opportunity to be here and knowing there’s a commitment back from this organization that I’m going to be here,” said Varitek. “I’m ectastic that I’m a Red Sox. I’m ecstatic for the fact that I had peace of mind to know that I’ll be in this uniform.
“I get closer to retiring in this uniform—not saying that I see retirement anytime soon—but it allows me that opportunity to do what’s most important for me, to wear the ‘C’ for this group of fans and people in this organization who have spent a lot of time building a championship.”
It is easy, of course, to suggest that Varitek “lost” the negotiations with the Red Sox. The decision to decline salary arbitration – a process that would have secured at least a one-year, $10 million deal for 2009, and might have been used to leverage a multi-year deal for more guaranteed money than what he received – was no doubt costly.
Moreover, the catcher seemed to spend the winter in a somewhat dismaying state. Once Varitek declined salary arbitration, there was little apparent interest in his services for a significant stretch of the winter. It appeared that no team wanted to part with the draft pick that would be needed to sign the veteran after a year in which he hit .220.
All the same, a case can be made that Varitek did quite well for himself given his admitted offensive struggles of a year ago. In a down market for all but a handful of players, he received a multi-year deal that included far more guaranteed money than what any other catcher received this offseason.
And while the decision to decline arbitration was a costly one, Varitek suggested that he received something as valuable as money: peace of mind. Acknowledging that a transition to a Red Sox catcher of the future may soon be at hand, the captain suggested that he wanted to be a part of that process. Being in Boston for more than one year, he believes, will make it easier for him to do so.
“(The arbitration offer) left a lot of uncertainty towards me, towards my role,” he said. “If my role changes, I wanted to be able to make sure that if my role did change that I could continue to develop and do the things they asked of me, to add and pass on my knowledge and the things that I have learned to maybe that next generation of catchers. So, yes, (multiple years) was what was most important to me.”
In fact, Varitek suggested that the idea of a multi-year deal in Boston was so important to him that he told agent Scott Boras to pursue all available opportunities to return before allowing the representative to explore offers from other clubs.
“Throughout this process with (Boras), I maintained that what I wanted was that we exhaust all alternatives here,” said Varitek. “I didn’t quite pull the governor off of him, so to speak, to allow him to pursue all opportunities. That was important to me. Outside of everything else, wearing this uniform has been important to me.”
That sentiment became apparent when Varitek took an extreme measure to circumvent his agent in mid-January. Negotiations with the Red Sox, said the catcher, had been going nowhere, prompting him to set up a face-to-face meeting with team owner John Henry in Atlanta.
After Henry and the catcher (a member of the Sox since 1997) met in person, the logjam broke. At that point, the two sides moved towards a deal over the next two weeks. The catcher couldn’t say with certainty whether the deal would have gotten done in the absence of the tete-a-tete, but clearly, the result was a desired one.
“I know that after the meeting, that things got started, really. There really was nothing before that,” said Varitek. “The two sides were able to get together a lot more after that. So, yeah, if my involvement aided that, I’m glad I got involved. If it had no impact, the final result is that I’m still here in this uniform.”
Now that he is back, Varitek – who reported in what appears to be robust shape to spring training – expressed that he was “extremely confident” that he would bounce back from the worst offensive year of his career. He declined to use a pair of strength-sapping illnesses in 2008 as an excuse for his struggles, suggesting instead that at times he makes his job harded with his left-handed swing (he hit .201 with a .616 OPS left-handed, compared to an impressive .284 with an .863 OPS batting right-handed).
Varitek sounded a belief that he can work with hitting coach Dave Magadan to simplify his left-handed approach so that he can better utilize his strength from the left side. As he works towards that goal, manager Terry Francona said that he would give the player time to figure out his offensive game.
“If you're waiting for him to be hit for early in the season,” said Francona, “I wouldn't hold your breath.”
Francona – noting the fact that on the first day of spring training – declined to detail any potential role changes for his catcher. Varitek, for his part, acknowledged the possibility that there could be a changing dynamic at play, but that he could not allow it to influence his approach to the game.
“I have to play with the ability to give the manager the respect that he is the manager and he has to be able to make decisions,” said Varitek. “I’ve always functioned that way and I’m going to continue to function that way. I don’t look for that to happen. I’m not going to look over my shoulder for that to happen. I’m going to look to help this team win games.”
In the end, the opportunity to do just that, and to move closer to retiring as a member of the Red Sox, was more important than anything else to the catcher. For that reason, after a winter of uncertainty, Varitek offered nothing but satisfaction about the outcome of his foray into free agency.
He is still a member of the Red Sox. In that sense, his offseason was nothing short of a success.
“There was never any doubt in what I wanted,” he said. “I know where my heart is, and this is where I’ve always wanted to be.”
For a complete transcript of Jason Varitek’s session with the media, visit the Full Count blog.