Red Sox still pursuing Varitek
Boston GM knows catcher's importance, but has other options
BOSTON -- The starting rotation is basically complete, with John Smoltz and Brad Penny climbing on board within the next couple of days. The backup outfield hole has been filled with Rocco Baldelli.
In other words, the 2009 Red Sox have started to take shape, with the exception of one issue.
Will Jason Varitek be back behind the plate on Opening Day, or will Boston have a new primary catcher for the first time in more than a decade?
"There's still some unfinished business," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "Jason is still out there. As I said at the beginning of the offseason, he's been a really important guy here to this organization and by no means have we shut the door on him. There's still some unfinished business there. And also, in the pursuit of a younger catcher."
Josh Bard, signed last week, will be a big part of the catching situation. But it's still hard to imagine the Red Sox without Varitek, their captain since 2005.
"It's tough," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "You don't have any control over it. The only thing you can do is just watch him, and watch what goes on. Obviously we hope he's back because he's a big part of our club."
Epstein, meanwhile, continues to keep all options open.
"We have the two young guys who combined to form a pretty good platoon last year at Pawtucket in George Kottaras and Dusty Brown," Epstein said. "And we brought in Josh Bard on a one-year deal, someone that we really trust to run a staff and call a game and has been a significant part of the catching solution for a good team in this league and done a nice job. We see him factoring into the equation for sure."
If Varitek had accepted arbitration on Dec. 7, he would have clinched his return to the Red Sox. But once he declined, the situation became ambiguous.
Hardly any news has come from agent Scott Boras or from the Red Sox in terms of the state of the Varitek negotiations.
Was Epstein surprised the catcher didn't take arbitration?
"That's always the player's decision," Epstein said. "The player and agent get together and decide what's in their best interest. Certainly it was something we were hoping he would have accepted and then he would have been back under those terms. It's behind us now and we'll see what happens next."
Manager Terry Francona is waiting, along with everyone else.
"When a guy earns the right to be a free agent and he's a high-profile player in a high-profile city with a high-profile agent, there has to be some patience," Francona said. "It's just not going to get done overnight. That's just the way it is. It can be a little unsettling, probably for everybody -- for me, for 'Tek. But that's just the way it is. The players have earned that right to go through free agency. We'll have to kind of be patient."
Varitek, 36, is coming off the worst offensive season (.220, 13 homers, 43 RBIs) of his career. No other teams have publicly emerged as players for his services.
Part of the reluctance from prospective suitors is that they would have to give up a first-round Draft pick for Varitek because he was offered arbitration.
At the Winter Meetings, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski specifically cited that as a reason he didn't pursue the widely respected veteran.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.