THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Martinez gives signs, but no final answer on status

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 4, 2010

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Victor Martinez was surrounded by cameras as he kicked back in the seat by his locker, his leg up on Marco Scutaro’s chair. Among the cameramen was Scutaro, as the shortstop filmed the entire scene with his camera phone, adding in questions and commentary. Martinez, wide smile on his face, relished the teasing.

“Excuse me,’’ Scutaro said. “Will you take 2 million pesos to come back to Boston?’’

While phrased differently, that’s the question most of Boston is wondering. With the Red Sox essentially without a starting catcher under contract for 2011, and Martinez’s and Jason Varitek’s deals up, negotiations with Martinez will be crucial for the Sox’ future. And they didn’t start out well, with the club opening with a two-year offer that was unexpected by Martinez and unlikely to yield an agreement.

That’s not to say Martinez, who was dealt to the Sox in a trade deadline deal in 2009, doesn’t want to return. He’s made it clear he does.

“For sure,’’ Martinez said. “That’s no question. I never needed to even think about it. It’s no question. Eyes closed, come back to here. This is a place that I really want to be.’’

And the Sox need him just as much. With Varitek possibly on his way out of Boston — though general manager Theo Epstein kept open the possibility the captain could return — and Jarrod Saltalamacchia unlikely to be ready to be the full-time catcher, that leaves the Sox without a reliable backstop. In addition, Martinez represents a significant middle-of-the-order bat.

“Vic’s done an unbelievable job since he’s been here,’’ Epstein said. “When we got him in a trade we knew we were getting a first class person and someone who prioritized winning and a natural hitter but I don’t think we quite understood the impact he would have here. He’s done a great job and we’d love to see the relationship continue.’’

One of the significant questions about Martinez, who turns 32 in December, remains how long he can be a full-time catcher. With the ability to serve as a first baseman and designated hitter, it’s not assured Martinez — never valued primarily for his defensive prowess — will remain behind the plate for the length of any deal.

It’s clear Martinez would like to keep catching. It’s not clear the Sox would like that.

“This point now that he’s eligible for free agency, I’ll probably put that in the category of things we should just probably talk about with him because it touches on negotiations and whatnot,’’ Epstein said.

As Martinez said, “I don’t know what is the deal. You look at my stats and just because I play a few games at first base, it doesn’t mean that I’m a first baseman. I’m just going to go into the offseason, prepare myself like I always do, work hard, and come back next year, whatever I’m going to be, and play hard like I always do.’’

But there were improvements in his defense this season, if only getting better from a brutal start. Martinez improved his caught stealing percentage to 21 by the end of the season, after letting just about everyone take an extra base in the first month. His arm strength and accuracy improved, as did his handling of the pitching staff.

“From where he was in April to where he was in September, I don’t think there was any comparison,’’ Epstein said. “He worked really hard at it, he made some improvements, worked with [bullpen coach] Gary Tuck and did a great job of leading the pitching staff all year. As a catcher fundamentally, he certainly made improvements during the course of the year.’’

So Martinez will head home to spend time with his family and ponder the offers for next season. Because, after a season in which he finished with a .302 average, 20 home runs, and 79 RBIs in 127 games (493 at-bats) because of a broken thumb, Martinez should stand to improve upon a contract that earned him $22.5 million over the last six years.

If all goes according to plan, this should be his final chance for a big contract as a catcher on the wrong side of 30. He is looking for stability, for a home. That might be in Boston. It might not.

“That’s what I’m looking for, a place to be for a long time,’’ Martinez said. “On the other hand, I’m looking for a place that gives me a chance to put a ring on my finger, a ring in my hand. I want to win.’’

And if that’s not in Boston, Martinez clearly has appreciated his time with the Red Sox.

“It was one of the best experiences in my career, to come here, wear this uniform, and play in front of these great fans,’’ Martinez said.

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