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Bob Ryan

Charge Boras with wild pitch, client with error in judgment

Jason Varitek caught Jon Lester after he no-hit the Royals at Fenway last season. Jason Varitek caught Jon Lester after he no-hit the Royals at Fenway last season. (2008 file/Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / January 31, 2009
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Jason Varitek wanted to test the waters.

He's lucky he didn't drown.

Has ever a man so smart been so unrealistic when it came to self-evaluation? Doesn't he own a good baseball mirror? I guess when he looked into his, he saw vintage Mike Piazza. The rest of the baseball world saw a .313 on-base percentage, a .359 slugging percentage, and, therefore, an anemic .672 OPS. The rest of the baseball world saw a 36-year-old catcher in obvious decline.

But he's back. He's back, but on the terms of the Boston Red Sox. He is not back on the terms of Jason Varitek and he is most certainly not back on the terms of the infamous Scott Boras. The uberagent is having an up-and-down offseason. He had a proper gauge on the markets for Mark Teixeira and Derek Lowe, but he completely misread the market for Varitek, submitting his client to nine weeks of unnecessary scrutiny by the media and public before waving a gigantic white towel two weeks before spring training.

Varitek should be very grateful for his new contract, which, given his limited offensive capability, is extremely generous. He gets $5 million this year, with the opportunity to earn as much as $10 million in the next two years through option pickups and incentives. That's a very fair salary for a man who will bat ninth, a man the manager hopes won't deteriorate into an automatic out before he retires.

It's a proper resolution. This is where Varitek belongs. He has spent his entire major league career with the Red Sox and will go down in history as one of the franchise's most beloved players. He earned that "C." And that's why he was so ill-served by his agent, who, once again, put dollars ahead of sense. Instead of taking immediate steps to make sure the Red Sox captain stayed where his presence was most mutually beneficial, Boras dragged this thing out for nine long weeks and ensured that his client would be subject to criticism. The longer Boras dawdled, the more opportunities people had to examine Varitek's puny offensive numbers. Boras should have gotten the job done quickly, so people would have forgotten about the numbers, especially the lefthanded numbers.

That's the real problem. Jason isn't too bad righthanded. In 95 righthanded at-bats, he had a very acceptable OPS of .863. But in 328 lefthanded at-bats, he had a scary OPS of .616.

There were all sorts of negative numbers for people to ponder. For example, Varitek had nine multihit games in May and only 10 more in the remaining four months, plus postseason. He had one three-hit game all year, May 31 in Baltimore.

He was 1 for 16 with the bases loaded.

He was 4 for 34 (.118) in the postseason, with one home run, one RBI, and a microscopic OPS of .395.

Can we be surprised that Boras found his client to be a tough sell? He was left with intangibles to market, and intangibles matter most to someone who already knows you. That someone is the Boston Red Sox.

Varitek has evolved into a very special case, a Red Sox player whose true value cannot be measured by the numbers. With the apparent exception of Daisuke Matsuzaka (who is apparently going to pitch his game the Daisuke way, period), the pitchers revere him. Did you get a load of the Jon Lester comment the other day? The southpaw went so far as to say that if he were building a team, the man he'd want to build around was Jason Varitek. That's the type of loyalty a Tony Soprano might appreciate, but I'm not sure there's a general manager's job in Lester's future.

That radical descent into extreme hyperbole reflects the feelings of most incumbent Red Sox pitchers. They love working with Varitek.

We can be certain the manager was not looking forward to a 2009 season without Varitek. Terry Francona will gladly suffer through another wasted Varitek offensive season to have the irreplaceable expertise he brings to handling the pitching staff. Furthermore, the skipper likes the idea of Varitek being in that locker room from February to, if all goes well, deep October. As one source explained, "Terry says that Varitek always has his back in the locker room."

But these qualities and skills all come at a cost when a player's bat is such a terrible liability. It's not as if Varitek is the only catcher in the world with leadership skills, or knowledge of how to call a game. It was one thing to throw $40 million over four years at a guy who had slugged .512 the year before and was coming off a two-year average of 22 homers and 79 RBIs, and possessed all these marvelous intangibles, and quite another to find appropriate compensation for someone whose offensive skills have deteriorated at an alarming rate.

The Red Sox were uncommonly generous to the point of borderline lunacy to offer Varitek arbitration, a move that could have cost them a minimum of $10 million for '09 had he accepted. But when Varitek and Boras declined, the Red Sox were quite rightly angered, or amused, or something. From then on, their posture was, well, go ahead, good luck finding something better.

Varitek has blindly trusted Boras from the beginning, and things have always worked out in his favor. This time, however, Boras was utterly reckless. Did Boras really think he could hypnotize some club executive into believing Varitek was still a decent hitter? It's been obvious for several weeks that there was no market for Varitek, that if he was going to prolong his major league career, it would have to be in Boston, where people will love him, warts and all.

So there it is. Jason Varitek gets paid far more than he's worth anywhere else. He bats ninth, probably gets pinch hit for a lot, and, if the Good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise, he might even have another three-hit game. But the pitchers are happy, and there's a lot to be said for that.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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