Varitek deemed invaluable

12/30/2004 - Boston Red Sox

From the beginning of the free agent filing period until two days before Christmas, Jason Varitek never attracted a firm offer from anyone other than the Red Sox.

It might have seemed strange, then, that the Sox twice improved their original proposal to the catcher until their four-year, $40 million offer was deemed sufficient by Varitek and his agent, Scott Boras.

But only to those who aren't familiar with Varitek's importance to the Sox.

"That was a classic case of Varitek being worth more to (the Red Sox) than any other team,'' said one major league executive.

The Sox only briefly thought of going in another direction, making a two-year offer to Damian Miller in November. But even that proposal was made with the understanding that, should Miller accept, the Sox would give Varitek one last opportunity to return.

When Varitek passed on the team's offer of salary arbitration, the clock began ticking for the Sox, who had only until Jan. 8 to re-sign him or lose the right to negotiate with him until May 1.

Heading into the holiday week, the Red Sox knew no business would be consummated. That gave them exactly a week after New Year's to complete a deal for the player many in the organization would argue was Boston's real Most Valuable Player.

With a standing offer of four years, $36 million on the table, the Sox could have waited until Jan. 7 or so, then tweaked their offer with another $500,000 or so per season. But at what cost? Why alienate their team leader or ratchet up the anxiety of the fan base?

Moreover, there was a fear that another team might emerge as 11th hour competitors for the catcher's services. The Sox had heard rumblings that the St. Louis Cardinals were readying an offer.

"It only takes one,'' said general manager Theo Epstein.

So, in an effort to finish off his To-Do list before the close of the calendar year, Epstein cut to the financial chase and secured the last piece of the offseason puzzle.

It took more than the Red Sox's largesse to retain Varitek, however. Unwilling to grant Varitek and Boras the no-trade clause they sought -- such a move would have triggered similar clauses for no fewer than three other players on the roster -- they found a creative alternative, instituting a policy in which no player with eight consecutive years of service to the team can be traded without his consent.

(Since free agents can't be traded without their consent until June 15, and Varitek's service time with the Sox reaches eight seasons in September, Varitek will be without trade protection for approximately six weeks -- from mid-June until the July 31 trading deadline).

In the zany, frat-house atmosphere that was the Red Sox clubhouse last season, Varitek provided the team with its ballast. While free spirits Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar kept the club loose, unshackled by the inherent pressures of playing in Boston, Varitek kept them bound, anchored by hard work, preparation and a steel will.

By virtue of his position, Varitek has become, with some reluctance, a team spokesman. When Pedro Martinez wouldn't speak to reporters after his outings, it was left to Varitek to do the talking for him; for that matter, he became the go-to player for perspective on every member of the staff.

It was Varitek who also provided the seminal moment of the Red Sox regular season. Mired in mediocrity for months and without an identity, Varitek was the central player in what Epstein labeled "the catalytic event'' of 2004 when he applied a face wash with his catcher's mitt to Alex Rodriguez on July 24.

Exactly a week later, Epstein gave the Sox a midseason makeover with his daring trade of Nomar Garciaparra, and the team was soon off and running. But it was Varitek's defense of batterymate Bronson Arroyo that had provided the wake-up call.

The 2005 Red Sox rotation will be, for the first time in seven seasons, without Martinez and will include two starters making the difficult first-time switch from the National League to the American League -- Wade Miller and Matt Clement.

Varitek will help immeasurably with the transition. His intimate knowledge of AL hitters and their tendencies will help fill in the gaps for the Red Sox newbies.

In the press conference to announce his re-signing, the Red Sox bestowed the captaincy on Varitek, making him just the team's third in the last 70 years of the franchise.

That, of course, was merely a formal acknowledgement, since Varitek had been the de facto captain for some time. In a winter in which the Sox had lost arguably the greatest pitcher in the history of the franchise, it speaks volumes that retaining their catcher was deemed the offseason's No. 1 priority.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.