THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

This one should leave fans hungry for answers

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / November 24, 2010

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This is one giant turkey.

The Red Sox just lost their 31-year-old, middle-of-the-order, switch-hitting catcher. On the eve of Thanksgiving. It feels like the old Haywood Sullivan/John Harrington days when the ball club would announce a ticket-price hike on the Friday after Thanksgiving (the 2010 Red Sox cleverly released their new prices on the day of the most hyped NBA regular-season game in 63 years).

The hot stove season is young, but losing Martinez at the jump is a public relations nightmare for a ball club that’s suddenly fighting for market share and TV ratings. The local landscape is peppered with popular, playoff-bound teams. The Sox did not make it into the tournament this year and the bland ball club is scuffling to generate positive buzz. Subtracting Martinez a month after ponying up $476 million for a soccer team com pounds the fallout.

“You can’t take a snapshot at the outset of the offseason process,’’ said Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. “You have to have patience to look at the finished product, not the first transaction that takes place. Have caution in that regard. It’s happenstance that this takes place before Thanksgiving in the first major move of the baseball offseason.’’

Martinez’s early departure seemed inevitable after the Sox insulted the catcher with a two-year offer in September. We all knew it was over right then and there. He wound up getting four years and $50 million from the Tigers, and now the Sox are going to sell you Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who hit .167 in 12 big league games last year.

General manager Theo Epstein tried to prepare us for this last week. He said the Sox won’t necessarily have big-name replacements for all of their openings. He said they were comfortable with Young Salty behind the dish every day. Same with Jed Lowrie (maybe) at third and Ryan Kalish (maybe) in left.

Sounds like they’re selling bridges again, no?

Losing Martinez makes little sense. The Sox are willing to pay David Ortiz (who can’t hit lefties) more than $12.5 million to do a job that pays $6 million tops. They’re going to wind up paying Jonathan Papelbon almost $12 million. J.D. Drew is still cashing checks for $14 million. And Martinez — your switch-hitter who crushes the Yankees and Rays — is not worth $12.5 million per year for the next four years?

Why are the Sox acting like they are a small-market team? They sell out every game. They have the second-highest-priced tickets in baseball. Their payroll is exceeded only by the Yankees’. And now they won’t pay the going rate for their starting catcher? How often do the Yankees lose a player they want to keep?

The answer is that probably the Sox did not really want to keep Martinez. Only Epstein knows for sure, but my belief is that they simply decided Martinez was not a good everyday catcher. They were willing to go to four years but drew a line on dollars, and ultimately were outbid.

Their hard line was based on statistics and free agent history. There are not a lot of happy endings for catchers in their 30s who sign four-year deals. Meanwhile, the Sox are happy to get a first-round pick (19th overall), plus a sandwich pick as compensation.

Tom Werner went on the radio last week and threw Epstein under the bus, assuring us that this would not be a bridge year, saying the “bridge’’ comment was not Epstein’s “finest Winston Churchill hour,’’ and declaring that the ball club would sign a “significant’’ free agent.

So what happens now? The Sox have $40 million to spend and claim they have no intention of taking their payroll south. The dollars that would have gone to Martinez can go somewhere else — not to Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, or Adrian Beltre (he’s already turned down five years and $64 million from Oakland), but somewhere. The winter is still very young and we don’t believe the ball club has plans to go cheap all of a sudden.

“I’m not going to address the question of how much we have or may not have,’’ said Lucchino. “That puts us at a competitive disadvantage.’’

This much is certain: The Sox have a PR problem when they fail to keep Victor Martinez a month after John Henry opens the vault to buy the Liverpool soccer team. Ownership can’t afford to have Red Sox Nation worrying that Henry is more concerned with Manchester United than the Yankees.

“That was never discussed in any meeting,’’ said Lucchino. “There’s absolutely no correlation whatsoever. Those are different companies.’’

What’s next?

“Our goal is not to make a big transaction as a PR move,’’ said the CEO. “Our goal is to pursue a team worthy of fan support, and that’s what we are doing.’’

Sounds good. But in the wake of Victor Martinez signing with the Tigers, a restless Nation waits and wonders.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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