DANA POINT, Calif.—Will anyone blink?
Jason Varitek has never made a secret of his desire to remain a member of the Red Sox. The Red Sox, for their part, have never made a secret of their respect for the catcher’s impact on both the pitching staff and clubhouse.
Yet with Varitek now a free agent, he and the only club for whom he has ever played must now figure out if a shared hope can become a reality. In theory, both sides want to continue their relationship, but the details of a potential deal may prove thorny.
Yesterday, agent Scott Boras held court at the G.M. meetings. A soundtrack of cash registers seemingly echoed in the lobby of the St. Regis Monarch Beach hotel as Boras discussed several of his clients, among them Manny Ramirez, Mark Teixeira, Derek Lowe and Varitek.
Varitek is coming off the worst offensive year of his career, having reached or neared career lows in batting average (.220), on-base percentage (.313) and slugging (.359). Those offensive woes left manager Terry Francona struggling to determine whether he should pinch-hit for his catcher during the second half of the season. History, meanwhile, is typically unkind to catchers who are 36 or older.
Even so, Boras—who noted that Varitek, who is amidst a divorce, faced “personal issues off the field that certainly had some impact” on his performance—was not about to suggest that his client would pursue anything other than top dollar. He cited the four-year, $52.4 million deal signed by as a 35-year-old (albeit one who was coming off an historically strong offensive season for a catcher) last winter, as a relevant point of comparison.
“I don’t think anyone will dispute that Jason’s ability with game-calling and his defensive acumen exceeds that of Posada, and that Posada’s offensive acumen exceeds that of Jason,” said Boras. “(Posada’s deal) is probably representative age-wise and it’s also representative of what a player on a winning team—for very different reasons, obviously—why a player gets paid.”
Boras focused his assessment of Varitek’s worth on the team’s won/loss totals when he caught. The agent bristled at the suggestion that his client had suffered through a disappointing season that might adversely impact his value.
“When you talk about Jason’s down year, I have to take exception with the terminology because of basically what his assignment is. His grade there may be 70 or 80 percent defensive,” said Boras. “Jason Varitek is paid to lead, and paid to get this team to win. His offensive production, while it has certainly been considered in the upper echelon for catchers, I know from the past negotiation we had with Boston that his offense was really a very small part of his value to the franchise…
“The Red Sox won 60 percent of the games that he caught. When you look at it over the last five years, that’s basically about the same. When you look at what they did when Jason wasn’t catching, they were under .500.”
The Sox were 73-47 (.608 winning percentage) in games started by Varitek in 2008, and 22-20 (.524) when Kevin Cash was behind the dish (mostly while paired with Tim Wakefield). Since Varitek broke into the majors, the Sox have a 707-468 record (.602) in games that he has started.
It is certainly unfair to compare directly the team record with Varitek and Cash (who serves as the personal valet of a knuckleballer) behind the plate. Even so, nine of the 12 pitchers who threw extensively to both catchers held batters to a lower OPS with Varitek behind the plate. (See chart.)
All the same, it remains to be seen whether any team will concur with Boras’ valuation of his client. Indications at the G.M. meetings were that the Sox reluctant to exceed a two-year offer to their catcher, even if it meant losing him.
At the same time, few other clubs seemed inclined to step forward to compete with even that sort of short-term contract. One official saw the Tigers and Dodgers (presuming that they have Russell Martin increase his playing time at third base—rumors of Martin’s availability as a trade chip were greeted with skepticism) as the most likely competitors for Varitek’s services.
With such a limited market, it would be understandable for Boston to stand firm on any offer they make to their catcher. Still, players and team officials have spent years celebrating the impact of Varitek’s intangibles on the Sox, creating a sense that it would be difficult for Boston to let the catcher leave.
“It will be interesting to see,” said one American League executive, “whether (the Sox) have the guts to walk away from him.”
Will it come to that? The coming months will provide an answer. But this much is already clear: Boras—who compared his client to Bob Boone and Carlton Fisk, players who caught at a high level into their 40s—is prepared to shoot for the stars in order to settle for no less than the moon.
“In many ways, his marketplace is unto himself because of the role that he provides,” said Boras. “You’re not going to have many catchers that have the performance levels and a 60 percent winning percentage on the franchise, have two world championships, have caught four no-hitters, I can go on and on. The idea is there just aren’t many players on the marketplace who are going to lead a club like Jason Varitek…
“(Red Sox owner) John Henry said it best,” Boras continued. “He said, ‘Whatever has been said about Jason Varitek, not enough can be said.”
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.