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Off their plate

Tigers scoop Martinez from Sox with a bounty of 4 years, $50m

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / November 24, 2010

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Jarrod Saltalamacchia woke up at his home in Florida yesterday morning and learned just how much the Red Sox think of him.

By refusing to get into a bidding war with the Detroit Tigers for All-Star catcher Victor Martinez, the Sox demonstrated their faith in Saltalamacchia, 25, who played in 12 major league games last season and had four hits.

“It’s exciting,’’ Saltalamacchia said by telephone. “But I’m a little stunned.’’

He’s not alone. The Tigers, who have been baseball’s most aggressive team this offseason, agreed to teams with Martinez on a four-year deal worth $50 million, pending a physical.

The Orioles offered $2 million less over the same amount of years while the Red Sox were a distant third in the chase, if not fourth behind the White Sox. The Red Sox gave Martinez two choices: three years and $36 million or $42 million over four.

Martinez is one of the best offensive catchers in the game, hitting .302 last season with 29 home runs and 79 RBIs despite missing a month with a broken left thumb. After being acquired from Cleveland midway through the 2009 season, Martinez quickly became a presence in the middle of the lineup and in the club house.

But the Red Sox had two concerns. Martinez will turn 32 in December, an age when catchers historically start to decline because of the physical demands of their position. They also had reservations about his defense.

Martinez threw out only 27 of 99 base-stealers last season and pitchers had a 4.28 earned run average throwing to him. Opponents had a .738 OPS with Martinez behind the plate, just above the American League average.

With other catchers, Sox pitchers had a 4.05 ERA and opponents a .706 OPS. Several Sox pitchers, particularly Josh Beckett and John Lackey, appeared uncomfortable working with Martinez.

For now, what Martinez provides offensively outweighs his shortcomings defensively. But that gap is expected to close as he ages.

The Sox also were motivated by getting two picks in the 2011 amateur draft as compensation for Martinez. Unless Detroit signs a higher-ranked free agent, which is unlikely, the Sox will get the Tigers’ first-round pick, No. 19 overall, along with a supplemental first-round pick.

To guarantee that compensation, the Sox offered Martinez salary arbitration yesterday. They also offered arbitration to free agents Adrian Beltre and Felipe Lopez.

The Sox, who balance the present with building for the future, view the upcoming draft as a strong one and want to amass picks.

Bill Hall and Jason Varitek were not offered arbitration. Those players are still free to sign with the Red Sox, however.

In the case of Varitek, that could be exactly what the Sox are hoping.

Varitek, who turns 39 in April, could be an ideal backup and mentor to Saltalamacchia. Both catchers are switch hitters, but Saltalamacchia traditionally has hit better against righthanders and Varitek better against lefthanders.

“I would love to work with Tek and I hope I get that opportunity,’’ Saltalamacchia said. “I haven’t talked to anybody in the organization but I’ve heard some of the comments and it gives me confidence to hear what they think of me.’’

Another possibility would be free agent catcher Miguel Olivo or trading for a starting catcher. Mike Napoli (Angels), Chris Iannetta (Rockies), and Russell Martin (Dodgers) could be available.

General manager Theo Epstein reserved comment yesterday. But during an appearance on WEEI, manger Terry Francona said he agreed with the team’s stance.

“Wanting to have Victor in the lineup next April is a no-brainer,’’ he said. “When you have to make a decision and you’re talking $40 million, $45 million, $50 million, four years down the road, that’s not quite as easy. I respect that.’’

Francona called Saltalamacchia “a really interesting kid.’’

“A switch-hitter with power, I think we view him potentially as somebody that can really fit the bill as maybe an everyday catcher with us,’’ the manager said.

“Maybe by giving him the everyday duty right now, that might not be the right thing to do. Maybe we need to help this kid, we don’t know. Those are decisions we have to make. Theo said the other day and I really believe it, at some point you have to assume some risk somewhere. I think we’re all pretty comfortable that if this is one of the risks we assume, we like this kid.’’

Saltalamacchia, who had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb in October, already had started throwing and been cleared to hit. He will start workouts with catching instructor Gary Tuck next month.

“This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for,’’ he said. “I’m glad Victor got what he wanted, but now I need to run with this.’’

Of more immediate concern is how the Sox will replace what Martinez provided offensively. The team still hopes to sign Beltre, which could be a long shot given his expectations, and has opened discussions with free agent outfielders Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth.

The loss of Martinez increases the pressure on Epstein to deliver a splashy acquisition following a third-place finish last season.

“The winter has to play itself out and it’s just beginning,’’ Francona said. “Theo and those guys will find a way to put a team together that we feel good about.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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