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Varitek, Sox in stare down

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 29, 2009 04:24 PM

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With only hours remaining before a team-mandated deadline, the Red Sox and catcher Jason Varitek seem caught in a stare down that could produce an unhappy ending for both the player and club.

According to a baseball source, the deadline by which Varitek must accept or decline the Red Sox’ latest contract offer is set for 8:30 a.m. Friday, leaving less than a day for the matter to play out. According to the same source, Varitek is seriously considering the option of sitting out the 2009 season and/or retiring rather than accepting the contract offer made to him last week.

In that proposal, the Red Sox gave Varitek the choice of a one-year contract for a guaranteed $5 million or a one-year deal for $5 million with a vesting option. In the latter scenario, Varitek would earn another $5 million if the team exercises the option for 2010, and $3 million if the option is exercised by the player.

Varitek earned $10 million in base salary and prorated bonus money in 2008.

Though Varitek appears to have no other suitors at this time, it would not be unprecedented for him to sit out until he receives an offer to his liking. With agent Scott Boras advising him, Varitek opted to return to Georgia Tech for his senior year after being drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Twins in 1993. He re-entered the draft and was selected in the first round by the Seattle Mariners in June 1994, then signed with the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League because he could not come to terms with the Mariners.

Varitek never actually played for the Saints and eventually signed with the Mariners in April 1995, but he lost almost a full year of development. A few years later, Boras took an almost identical approach with current Sox outfielder J.D. Drew, who remains an enemy of the people in Philadelphia after similarly stonewalling the Phillies (who drafted him in 1997) and signing with the St. Louis Cardinals (in 1998).

Two years ago, prior to the 2007 season, Boras similarly threatened to send Daisuke Matsuzaka back to Japan rather than accept the Sox’ six-year, $52 million offer. The agreement was finalized at the last moments only after Matsuzaka intervened and accepted the deal.

Should Varitek reject the Red Sox’ offer, the team may have little choice but to walk away given the finality with which this offer was presented to the player. The Sox then would likely go to spring training with a catching platoon of the switch-hitting Josh Bard (better from the right side) and lefthanded-hitting George Kottaras. Dusty Brown, a righthanded hitter, also would be in camp.

Independent of the Varitek negotiations, the Sox are expected to revisit talks with the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks about respective deals for the switch-hitting Jarrod Saltalamacchia and the lefthanded-hitting Miguel Montero. Saltalamacchia is regarded as having better offensive upside but comes with major questions defensively. Montero is looked upon as a more balanced player and the more likely acquisition by trade, according to another baseball source, and presumably would displace Kottaras given that he bats from the left side.

There is the possibility, of course, that Boras and Varitek are threatening to reject the offer merely as a way of leveraging the Red Sox into a more desirable agreement given the approaching deadline.

Though Varitek has been insistent upon a multi-year deal since the start of the offseason, a source in the player’s camp recently indicated other reasons for turning down the club’s offer of arbitration in December. While many have assumed that Varitek would end up with a salary in the vicinity of $10 million by accepting arbitration, much as been made recently of the fact that arbitration might have resulted in a non-guaranteed contract, allowing the Sox to release Varitek during spring training for merely a fraction of the cost.

Last spring, for instance, the Red Sox released catcher Doug Mirabelli before his deal became guaranteed, paying him just a fraction of the money he might have been due. The move caught many veteran players by surprise, including Varitek, who shared a close relationship with Mirabelli.

Additionally, while it has been assumed that Varitek would end up with a 2009 salary near his $10 million of last year, that also might be debatable. Under terms of the bargaining agreement, teams generally can cut player salaries by a maximum of 20 percent in the arbitration process -- that would place the Sox’ minimum offer to Varitek at a non-guaranteed $8 million -- but that stipulation does not apply to free agents like Varitek.

As such, it is possible the Sox could have entered the arbitration process offering Varitek significantly less than $8 million, particularly following a season in which Varitek batted just .220 overall and a mere .187 after May 21.

Though it seems highly unlikely that the Sox would release a player of Varitek’s stature -- unlike Mirabelli, Varitek is team captain and has been a career-long starter -- it would have been within the club’s rights to do so.

While Varitek has been extremely loyal to the Sox since arriving in Boston in July 1997, Boras has tried to lure other teams into the bidding this offseason. On Wednesday, a high-ranking Los Angeles Dodgers source indicated that Boras tried to peddle Varitek to the Dodgers when the sides met early in the free-agent process.

Later, representatives of the Dodgers and Detroit Tigers -- two of the teams in greatest need of catching help -- publicly indicated they had no interest in Varitek because they were unwilling to meet the player’s salary demands and because signing him would have required losing a high draft pick as compensation.

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