Decision time looming for Varitek, Sox
Captain's future should be determined by the end of Friday
BOSTON -- The topic that has engulfed Red Sox Nation for more than three months is finally on the verge of closure. At some point on Friday, Jason Varitek's status, at least when it comes to whether he will remain with the only Major League team he's played for, should finally be resolved.
When the Red Sox presented their formal offer to Varitek at the end of last week, they let it be known that there was a one-week deadline. While reports surfaced that the deadline was 8:30 a.m. ET on Friday, a Red Sox official said that was not the case, but that the club was hoping to have a resolution by the end of the day.
Red Sox officials have pointed out that the deadline was not put in place to put Varitek into a corner or to make him feel uncomfortable. As one high-ranking Boston official put it earlier this week, it was simply the club's way of bringing a conclusion to the situation, one way or the other.
Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., on Feb. 12. The Red Sox feel that the time has come that they need to know if Varitek is going to be one of those catchers. Presumably, Varitek would also like to have his situation settled.
The offer made to Varitek was for one year at $5 million, plus an option for 2010 that could either be picked by the team for $5 million or by Varitek for $3 million. Some reports have suggested that Varitek could simply take the one-year offer if the options don't appeal to him.
There have been no public words by the Red Sox, Varitek or agent Scott Boras since the offer was made, which has only added to the intrigue.
While Varitek has been at an impasse with the Sox for weeks, and no other teams have publicly entered the negotiations, one other possibility was speculated on Thursday afternoon.
Citing a "baseball source," the Boston Globe reported on its Web site that, "Varitek is seriously considering the option of sitting out the 2009 season and/or retiring rather than accepting the contract offer made to him last week."
It seems highly unlikely that Varitek would retire, given his passion for the game. During the 2008 postseason, he joked about playing for another 10 years. That seemed to be Varitek's light-hearted way of saying that the uniform will have to be ripped away from him before he ends his playing career.
For that same reason, sitting out the season also seems remote, but Varitek has gone down a similar road before. After being selected by the Seattle Mariners in the First-Year Player Draft in 1994, Varitek, under the advisement of Boras, held out and signed with an Independent League team, the St. Paul Saints. Varitek never suited up for the Saints, but did not agree to terms with the Mariners until 1995.
Varitek broke into the Major Leagues with the Red Sox as a September callup in 1997, and by 1999, was entrenched as the starting catcher.
All offseason, teammates have expressed hope that the captain and the Red Sox can extend a relationship that began on July 31, 1997, when Varitek and Derek Lowe came over in a trade with the Mariners for reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. It wound up being one of the best trades in club history.
In the immediate aftermath of elimination in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Oct. 19, 2008, players immediately started fielding questions on Varitek's uncertain future.
At that time, first baseman Kevin Youkilis said it would be "eye-opening" if he arrived at Fort Myers and Varitek wasn't there.
At a speaking event earlier this week, left-hander Jon Lester was asked what it would be like if Varitek doesn't come back.
"I don't want to think about that," Lester told reporters. "If I had to build a team, he's the guy that I would pick to start my team around."
Regardless of whether Varitek comes back, his legacy with the Red Sox is secure, serving as a leader for the team's first two World Series titles since 1918.
But this offseason has been about business for both sides, not reflection.
At this stage of his career, Varitek's top skills are intangibles, like the way he calls a game, blocks the plate and provides leadership. But those things can be hard to measure in salary negotiations.
Though Varitek had the worst offensive season of his career in 2008 and will turn 37 in April, the Red Sox offered him arbitration, knowing that this could have slotted the catcher in for a salary of somewhere between $10-$12 million for 2009. Seldom do players take pay cuts during the arbitration process. Varitek was coming off a contract that paid him $40 million over four seasons.
Of course, a big part of the reason Boston did this was to guarantee it a compensatory Draft pick if Varitek signed with another team.
But Varitek, in a somewhat surprising move, turned down the offer of arbitration. Though Varitek's contract wouldn't have been guaranteed if he had taken arbitration -- the Red Sox would only have been responsible for one-sixth of it if they had cut him during Spring Training -- it would have made his return to the team all but certain.
Considering Varitek's status in the clubhouse and in the community, it's hard to imagine the Red Sox would have released their captain.
The entire arbitration situation seemed to stall the negotiations. Varitek became less attractive to other teams once he was offered arbitration because of the compensation issue. And once he rejected it, it officially ended any contractual ties he had to the Red Sox.
As the situation dragged on -- perhaps due somewhat to tension between Boras and the Red Sox over the bitter end to the Mark Teixeira negotiations -- Varitek requested a face-to-face meeting with Boston owner John W. Henry.
That took place on Jan. 16, as Henry flew to Atlanta. And a week later came Boston's formal offer.
Now, decision time is closing in.
|"I'd be shocked if 'Tek doesn't come back to Boston. The fans love him there. The guys in that clubhouse love 'Tek."|
-- MLB Network analyst|
If that price is still too much for Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, the club might just have to go with what it has internally.
That would include Josh Bard, the switch-hitter who was signed to a one-year deal in December, and one of the prospects (Dusty Brown and George Kottaras) who formed a solid platoon at Triple-A Pawtucket last season.
Of course, in a perfect world, the Red Sox would get Varitek back for another year or two and he could mentor his eventual successor.
"I'd be shocked if 'Tek doesn't come back to Boston," said former Red Sox first baseman Sean Casey, who announced his retirement and move to the MLB Network earlier this week. "The fans love him there. The guys in that clubhouse love 'Tek. I can't imagine Jason Varitek putting on a uniform besides the Boston Red Sox. I saw him a few weeks ago. I know he wants to come back to the Red Sox. So I hope they get that done. I think it would be good for both sides, no doubt about it, especially that pitching staff."
If not the Red Sox, then who for Varitek? Thus far, there aren't any known offers on the table for Varitek. But part of the reason might be, according to the Boston Herald, that Varitek wanted to pursue every avenue with the Red Sox before exploring other opportunities.
By the end of Friday, both the Red Sox and Varitek should know if they are going to have to go in new directions.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.