Catcher Jason Varitek, considered by many the free agent the world champion Red Sox could least afford to lose, signed a four-year deal with the team that will pay him $40 million through the 2008 season.
The Red Sox named Varitek their third captain since 1923 today after giving their longtime catcher a four-year deal. Varitek didn't know of the honor until he was presented with home and road jerseys bearing a red "C" on Friday to formalize the leadership role he has grown into since joining the team in 1997.
"It's not every day you're lucky enough to sign a player who embodies everything you want your franchise to be," general manager Theo Epstein said. "When you have that player, you don't let him get away."
Rice was the last official Red Sox captain, serving from 1985 until he retired in 1989; "Captain Carl" was in the role from 1969-83. They were prolific hitters who earned the honor by virtue of their stardom. Varitek is a potent offensive player but what sets him apart is his handling of the pitching staff and his presence in the clubhouse.
"I'm extremely honored right now. I don't really know what to say," Varitek said. "If I can do half of what they did statistically, I'll be all right."
Other players have been considered captains informally through the years, like Varitek was until this week.
"We're not asking Jason to change at all by giving him that captaincy," Epstein said. "It's just a recognition of something everybody knows."
Pitcher Tim Wakefield said he knows Varitek's value despite working almost exclusively with backup catcher Doug Mirabelli.
"He's really the glue that holds the whole team together," Wakefield said.
Sox manager Terry Francona agreed.
''That's terrific -- a nice Christmas present," Francona said by phone from his Philadelphia-area home last night.
''I kind of expected that he'd come back, but until he's actually signed, something can always go wrong. It's awesome, because he's the best. Now I can go back to saying that without costing the organization any more money."
Varitek will receive a $4 million signing bonus paid over four years and annual salaries of $9 million. The Red Sox have a policy against no-trade clauses, so the sides came up with a creative compromise.
Varitek will get no-trade rights once he has spent eight continuous years with the team. Four other Red Sox players, including Manny Ramirez, have contracts that entitle them to no-trade clauses that match any of their teammates; none of them would reach that milestone in their current contracts.
"We felt that loyalty should be rewarded. That's good policy," Epstein said. "The no-trade clause protection was the most difficult part of the negotiations."
Now that he's signed, Varitek has a busy winter ahead of him. A studious preparer, he must familiarize himself with a half-dozen new pitchers: starters Miller, Clement and Wells, swingman Halama and reliever Mantei with one spot left to be filled.
"The biggest thing is winning. To do it the first year -- we all know how long it took," Varitek said. "Hopefully we have a foundation big enough to do it again."
Varitek is the only one of Boston's so-called Big Four free agents -- pitchers Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe and shortstop Orlando Cabrera were the others -- retained by the Sox, who have spent a busy month revamping the roster for the 2005 season.
Martinez signed with the New York Mets, Cabrera with the Anaheim Angels, and Lowe remains unsigned, though his agent says there are as many seven teams interested in his services. To compensate for their losses, Epstein signed shortstop Edgar Renteria and three new starting pitchers --David Wells, Matt Clement, and Wade Miller, all veterans. Also signed was pitcher John Halama, a lefthander who can start or relieve, and a relief pitcher, Matt Mantei.
Earlier this week, Epstein also traded reserve outfielder Dave Roberts, whose stolen base against the Yankees in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series is widely credited as the catalyst for Boston's historic comeback, to San Diego for backup infielder Ramon Vazquez and backup outfielder Jay Payton. "Theo has methodically put together the elements necessary to defend our championship," Sox majority owner John W. Henry said by e-mail last night. "Jason was crucial to re-sign on many different levels. There is no doubt that the 2005 season and seasons to come at Fenway are going be exciting. We are all looking forward to a most joyous spring training."
With Varitek coming to terms, the most significant piece of business left for Epstein is to trade one of his two first basemen, Kevin Millar or Doug Mientkiewicz, either of whom is expected to bring minor league prospects in return, according to club sources.
Epstein declined comment last night.
We're getting there," Francona said of the roster moves. "I'm really excited about the Wade Miller thing. I've been a big Wade Miller fan for a long time. I told Theo last night, when we were talking about Wade Miller, `You've got me now. I'm excited about this team.' "
It is club policy not to grant no-trade language in a contract, in part because when the team signed Manny Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million deal in 2001, he had what is known as a "most favored nation" clause, which stipulated that if the team granted a no-trade clause to any player, Ramirez automatically would receive similar protection.
The compromise offered by Boras led to a change in club policy, according to sources. A player cannot be traded without his consent if he reaches eight years of uninterrupted major league service, all with the Sox. Varitek should reach that threshold in September.
"Say what you will about Scott," said Barry Axelrod, agent for new Sox pitcher Clement, "but you can never challenge the fact that he's bright, creative, and he gets things done."
By granting Varitek no-trade protection after eight seasons, the Sox are giving him the no-trade provision two years before he would have received it under baseball's "10-5 rule." Under that rule, a player with at least 10 years' service in the major leagues, and five consecutive years with the same club, cannot be traded without his permission.
Only three catchers in Sox history -- Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, Sammy White, and Worcester's Rich Gedman -- have caught more games than Varitek, who has been behind the plate in 788 of his 832 games in a Sox uniform. Last season, he batted a career-best .296, 23 percentage points better than his previous best, with 18 home runs and 73 RBIs. In on-base percentage, a statistic highly valued by the Sox, Varitek ranked 10th in the American League at .390.
The Sox have been negotiating a contract with Varitek since spring training, but after the season, when Varitek filed for free agency, the sides appeared far apart. The Sox were offering a three-year, $24 million deal, while Boras had set the bar at five years, $55 million, plus the demand of no-trade protection.
"I know what's important and that is that I have to know my family is taken into consideration," Varitek said in explaining his insistence on a no-trade clause. "And this is not going to be just my decision. This is going to be my entire family's decision -- that we'll be able to know that we'll be able to stay in one place."
But with no other team surfacing as a serious bidder for Varitek's services, and both sides stating their desire to reach an agreement, progress was made, even though time drew short when Varitek on Sunday declined the club's offer of salary arbitration, giving the team only until Jan. 8 to reach a deal or lose the right to negotiate with him until May 1.
Varitek dropped his demand for a fifth year and came down in price, while the Sox added a year to their offer and gave no-trade protection.
"We don't want to build a team without Jason," Epstein said earlier this month, citing the importance of Varitek's leadership as well as his on-field performance.
Varitek, who was paid $6.9 million last season, now ranks among the elite, salarywise, at his position. Mike Piazza of the New York Mets is scheduled to be paid $15 million in the last year of a seven-year, $91 million deal. Jason Kendall, traded this month from the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Oakland A's, is in the fourth year of a six-year, $60 million deal. Jorge Posada of the Yankees is entering the fourth year of the five-year, $51 million deal he signed before the 2002 season. If Posada catches 330 games between 2004 and '06, he will automatically trigger a $12 million option for the 2007 season. Another Boras client, Ivan Rodriguez, signed a four-year, $40 million deal last season with the Detroit Tigers, but only the first two years are guaranteed.
Varitek, who turns 33 April 11, will be 38 by the end of his new deal. Historically, catchers have declined in offensive production in their 30s, but Boras generated a detailed analysis that argued persuasively that Varitek's career path mirrors that of the exceptions, like Fisk, who at age 37 in 1985 posted career bests of 37 home runs and 107 RBIs for the White Sox.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.