Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reality Check for Varitek

This is clearly a moment of reckoning for Jason Varitek. It is also a defining moment, a moment of truth.

Will he or won't he accept the Red Sox formal offer, one that guarantees him $8 million over the next two seasons?

With no incentives for games played or at-bats, the deal is a far cry from the minimum of $10 million he forfeited in rejecting arbitration. It's easily imaginable that the current situation has left a most bitter taste in his mouth.

On the whole, Varitek must be feeling especially humbled right now. Little more than two weeks remain before Major League pitchers and catchers are due to report for Spring Training, and no other team wants the free agent catcher. That's got to smart. It's got to be incredibly deflating.

The truth is, Varitek gambled and lost. He rolled the dice and they just didn't roll his way. He figured that filing for free agency would result in long-term, big money offers from multiple suitors. False.

I don't doubt for a second that Varitek has wanted to return to the Red Sox all along; it's just that he wanted to do so on his own terms. Multiple offers would have given him leverage with the Red Sox and raised his price. That never materialized. Ultimately, he only has himself to blame. And apparently he understands this.

Varitek claims he wasn't aware that teams would have to surrender draft picks, much less a No. 1 draft pick, in order to sign him. He says he takes full responsibility for his decision to turn down salary arbitration from the Red Sox and that he doesn't blame Scott Boras for that. While the agent should have given him better advice, Varitek is right to take full responsibility for this error.

It's bizarre that a veteran ballplayer, one who has filed for free agency in the past, didn't understand the basic rules of free agency. It's not only indefensible, it's unbelievable. Varitek had to have known better; he is a grown man, an educated man, a millionaire. He had to take responsibility for that. Not to have done so would have hurt his credibility and reputation. But his agent also has some culpability for not making all of this abundantly clear to him before the process began.

Now Varitek is left with little leverage, and the bitter taste of humility rolling around in his mouth.

The 11-year veteran is nearly 37, a time when most catchers are well in decline, have moved on to a less taxing position, or are retired. Varitek's skills have declined considerably; the best that can be said about him is that he "calls a good game," and that he "prepares very well."

The truth is, Varitek was only able to throw out 22% of base stealers last season, which is below average. The top ten catchers in the Majors caught between 29% and 44% of base stealers. Varitek was 18th in that category. However, this was the least of his issues.

Though Varitek hit just .220 last season, what's really worrisome is that he batted a mere .187 after May 21. And what some people have forgotten is that Varitek hit .225 after the All-Star break in 2007. This means that over the last season-and-a-half, Varitek has hit just .222, and we shouldn't expect a significant improvement. Last year was not an aberration – it was part of a continuing decline.

Varitek's 13 homers were his second lowest for any season in which he had at least 400 at-bats, and his 43 RBI were his lowest for any season with 400 at-bats. He was an automatic out from the left side, leading many to suggest that he should stick to batting from the right.

None of this should suggest that Varitek is washed up or should retire. He can still play, just not at the elite level he once did.

Last year, Varitek put up the following line: .220/.313/.359

Meanwhile, the league average for AL catchers was: .258/.322/.393

So, Varitek was below average in all categories. This means he should be paid below average. Yet, the Red Sox have given him a better than fair offer, considering his recent performance. They have allowed Varitek to save face and hold his head high. They have not sought to humiliate their Captain; after all, they want him back for at least one more season, perhaps two.

Thirty-eight-year-old Gregg Zaun, a similar offensive catcher at this stage, just accepted a one-year, $1.5 million contract from Baltimore. Varitek should consider himself lucky not to have to play for similar money.

Despite the Red Sox hatred of Scott Boras, they are not trying to stick it to Varitek. They are not being vindictive by offering him a guaranteed $8 million (possibly $10 million) over the next two years. This is not an attempt at humiliation by his employers. This is as good as it gets for Varitek. This is more than fair market value at this stage of his career.

The Red Sox don't need to negotiate any further. They have all the leverage now, and Varitek has reportedly been given a Saturday deadline to accept the offer.

What's in it for the Red Sox?

Varitek is the team Captain. He is a leader. He was behind the plate for two World Series Championship teams – the first in the lifetimes of almost all Red Sox fans. He's also caught four no-hitters for the Sox, and been behind the plate for more games than any other catcher in team history. He can competently and deftly handle a pitching staff comprised of seasoned veterans and inexperienced youth.

He should do the right thing, the smart thing, and accept the Red Sox generous offer. Truthfully, it's the only thing. It's all he has left.

Varitek gambled, and he lost a lot of money this winter. It's time for him to accept it and move on – with the Sox.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

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