- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- The interview was with the BBC, and a dapper John W. Henry was speaking about the newest bauble in his sporting collection: the Reds of Liverpool, not the Red Sox of Boston.
"We're definitely in the market for the highest-caliber players," Henry said, "but age is an issue.''
Bring him back to this side of The Pond, and Henry could just as easily have been offering an explanation for why the Red Sox permitted the Detroit Tigers to outbid them for the services of free-agent catcher Victor Martinez. There were limits to how far the Sox were willing to go for a catcher who turns 32 in a month, even though that catcher is the best offensive player at his position in the American League not named Joe Mauer.
Another important phase of his operation was asking catching instructor Gary Tuck to spend the next two months in Florida offering the new man a crash course in the nuances of the job. You don't make that kind of a commitment to a backup; you do that only for the man you've identified as your catcher now and for the foreseeable future.
The last time the Sox placed this kind of responsibility on a 25-year-old, switch-hitting catcher, Jason Varitek was a rookie with the Red Sox, saddled with some of the same questions that now surround Salty: great resume, untapped potential. That worked out all right for, oh, a dozen years and two World Series titles.
Varitek came out of a different regime (the Dan Duquette era), but Epstein is placing the same kind of bet on Saltalamacchia that the Duke made on Varitek.
Had the Red Sox stayed healthy this past season, they probably would have gone deep into October with Martinez, which might have made Tuesday's parting that much more painful. Martinez was the only catcher in the big leagues who batted .300 or better and hit 20 or more home runs last season, and he murdered left-handed pitching, leading all AL hitters in batting average and slugging percentage against lefties.
But he plays a position that wears on a hitter faster than any other, and he offered little resistance to opposing baserunners while dazzling no one with his game management. The Tigers will have Martinez share catching duties with up-and-comer Alex Avila while also spending a fair amount of time serving as DH and spelling Miguel Cabrera at first. They love the idea of his bat in the middle of their order.
But the Red Sox have a DH in David Ortiz, Saltalamacchia gives them the chance of a significant defensive upgrade behind the plate, and they believe that in a year or two -- if not sooner -- they will have a more productive option at first base/DH than Martinez could provide.
Epstein was not being disingenuous prior to the GM meetings when he said that the Sox wanted to re-sign Martinez and free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre. Of course he did, but only at his price, and the lack of urgency the Sox displayed when Martinez expressed a clear preference for an extension over free agency underscores their willingness to lose him.
Seen in a vacuum, allowing themselves to be outbid for Martinez translates as a major short-term loss for the Sox, who quite likely will wind up parting ways with another great source of right-handed power in their lineup in Beltre. The Sox, according to a source familiar with negotiations, offered Martinez a three-year package for $36 million, an average of $12 million a year, or a four-year deal for $42 million, which dropped the average annual value to $10.5 million. The Tigers trumped those offers with a reported four-year, $50 million deal that awaits Martinez passing a physical before it becomes official.
But how great a loss Martinez's departure will be will depend on (1) whether Saltalamacchia evolves to become the player the Sox believe he will, and (2) the other moves the Sox make, not only this winter, but in the next 12 months. If the Sox ultimately succeed in their pursuit of Adrian Gonzalez, sign Carl Crawford -- "a game-changer," as Terry Francona called him on the radio Tuesday -- or right-handed power hitter Jayson Werth, or execute a trade for Justin Upton (a long shot), then allowing Martinez to go will look a lot better than it does now.
The Sox, as compensation for losing Martinez, also gain the Tigers' first-round pick (19th overall) and a first-round sandwich pick in a draft that projects to be loaded with talent, according to Epstein.
There are times, Epstein said last week, that you have to give your young players a chance. This is one of them. It's conceivable that Epstein has overrated Saltalamacchia as badly as he did Wily Mo Pena a few years ago. But don't count on it. And if he has, you can be certain he will act quickly to remedy any misjudgment.
There are some high-caliber bullets still to be played. Only then can we fully evaluate this move.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
2hAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com
8hAnthony Witrado, Special to ESPN.com