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Sox strike deal with Varitek, still seek young catcher

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 30, 2009 05:26 PM

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From the pursuit of Mark Teixeira to the retention of Jason Varitek, the Red Sox offseason effectively drew to a close today. The team's roster is all but set, the relationship with its captain ultimately preserved.

On the day of a team-mandated deadline, the Red Sox reached agreement with Varitek early this afternoon on a one-year year, $5 million contract for the 2009 season, according to multiple baseball sources. The deal includes a dual second-year option that first allows the Sox to retain the player for an identical $5 million salary 2010; should the Sox decline that, Varitek can exercise a right to return to the club for a guaranteed $3 million with the chance to earn an additional $2 million in incentives.

According to a source familiar with the negotiations, Varitek can earn those incentives only if he (and not the team) exercises the 2010 option, leaving the maximum value of the deal at $10 million. Under the terms of the agreement, Varitek would earn $400,000 at each plateau for starting 80, 90, 100, 110 and 120 games in 2010.

Those incentives, said multiple sources familiar with the negotiations, ensure Varitek that he will be paid a salary more commensurate with a starting player should the Sox still need him to fill that role beyond 2009.

The Sox did not formally announce the deal because the agreement is contingent upon Varitek passing a physical exam next week.

According to a team source, Varitek and general manager Theo Epstein spoke directly via telephone late Thursday night to help bridge the gap between the player and team. Sox officials then finalized the deal with agent Scott Boras this morning and early afternoon, just beyond an 8:30 a.m. deadline the team had established before Varitek and Epstein spoke.

That deadline, according to a source in the Varitek camp, was established by the club in a letter sent via registered mail dated Jan. 22. According to the same source, copies of the letter were delivered to both Varitek and Boras at 8:30 a.m. last Friday, Jan. 23, specifying that Varitek had "one week" to accept or decline the team's offer.

Varitek's discussion with Epstein was the second 1-on-1 conversation the player had with a team official in the last two weeks. On Friday, Jan. 16, Varitek had a 90-minute, face-to-face meeting with owner John Henry near the player's Atlanta-area home, a session Varitek requested with the hope of re-opening dialogue between the club and Boras.

Just prior to that, already-tense relations between the Red Sox and Boras had become additionally strained in the wake of Teixeira negotiations, a pursuit that left some Sox officials, most notably Henry, feeling cheated. On the day Teixeira's eight-year, $180 million agreement with the New York Yankees was formally announced, Henry sent an email to the Associated Press in which he stated that the Sox always expected the Yankees to get "last call" because "that's what you deal with in working with Scott."

By that stage, Varitek and Boras had long since rejected the club's offer for salary arbitration, a decision that still might have cost the player millions. While an arbitration award might have resulted in non-guaranteed earnings for the player, most believe Varitek would have ended up with a 2009 salary in the range of $10 million -- a number equal to his 2008 earnings in base salary and pro-rated bonus money -- had he accepted the arbitration offer.

Instead, Varitek's maximum salary rests at $10 million for the next two seasons combined, though he can earn slightly more in standard award bonuses (like Most Valuable Player, etc.) that are part of most contracts.

With Varitek secured, the Sox now have much-needed experience in a catching corps that includes Josh Bard, George Kottaras, Dusty Brown and Mark Wagner. Bard, who was signed earlier this offseason at a non-guaranteed salary of $1.7 million, is the most likely candidate to serve as Varitek's backup, though that likely will be determined after pitchers and catcher report to Fort Myers on Feb. 12 for the start of spring training.

In the longer term, the Varitek signing now gives the Sox valuable time to continue their search for a long-term replacement, something the club still hopes to accomplish through trade. According to a baseball source, the Sox still could make a deal for a young, developing catcher before the start of the season, though Varitek's presence now gives them the luxury of extending that search into midyear (just before or at the annual July 31 trading deadline) and even beyond the 2009 season.

To this point, the Sox' most serious discussions for a catcher have taken place with the Texas Rangers (for Jarrod Saltalamacchia) and the Arizona Diamondbacks (for Miguel Montero), but the Sox found the asking price of both teams to be too great. All of that made it more critical for the club to lock up Varitek, highly regarded by pitchers, coaches and managers, and who has been with the Sox since joining them via trade in July 1997.

Now, with Varitek all but certain to end his career with the Red Sox, the team can more freely go about finding his replacement without as much urgency.

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