January 2009

Logic prevails — Back comes the Captain

Really, would it have made any sense if Jason Varitek wasn’t coming back to the Red Sox in a two-year agreement that will hopefully allow the catcher to retire wearing the uniform of the only team he’s ever played for?

It’s too bad it had to drag on this long, but this is where this thing should have been headed all along.

Yes, I know Varitek had a terrible year at the plate. I also know that the Red Sox, as presently constituted, are a better team with Jason Varitek than they would have been without him. His intangibles are real. Ask any pitcher who has ever thrown to him. Just a coincidence that Varitek is the only man in baseball history to catch four no-hitters? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

With this veteran-laden staff, Varitek was the perfect guy to lead again. Perhaps there will come a time when the Red Sox can hand the keys over to their catcher of the future. But that man isn’t even in the organization right now.

Varitek will be 37 in April, but very driven to have people stop talking about his age and his sharp decline with the bat. No matter what Varitek does offensively in 2009, it will be hard for it to be worse than what he did last year.

Why did he turn down arbitration? We still don’t know exactly. Maybe he was scared off by the way the Red Sox re-signed Doug Mirabelli last winter, only to cut him in Spring Training. Maybe having two years guaranteed was a necessity.

It no longer matters. The Red Sox and Varitek found a way to keep a good thing going for a couple of more years.

It would have been surreal for the Red Sox to get to Spring Training without Varitek.

“To me, he’s the backbone of the team,” Manny Delcarmen said today. “Throughout this whole thing, I thought it would be kind of weird not having him in the clubhouse and not having him there to yell at me for not pitching inside. I’m sure a lot of guys feel the same way. Everyone is happy that it’s over. I could not even picture the clubhouse without him in there.”

Decision day looming for the Captain

It appears as if this could finally be the week we find out whether or not Jason Varitek continues his Red Sox captaincy into the 2009 season.

This has been an odd negotiation to say the least. First, there was Varitek’s highly curious choice of declining arbitration, even though it would have set him up at a rate — $10-12 million — he will now come nowhere close to.

Then, there was the utter lack of movement on both sides, as both appeared to be waiting for the other one to make a concession.

And now the latest, as first reported by WEEI.com’s Rob Bradford on Sunday night. The Sox gave Varitek a $5 million offer for 2009, that includes a dual option for 2010. $5 million if the club picks it up, and $3 million if Varitek exercises it.

There is apparently a deadline attached to Boston’s offer, which means that Theo and Co. are getting antsy to have closure.

I would think that Varitek wants the situation to come to an end as much as the team does. Varitek still looks like a great fit on this team. He hasn’t lost his touch at handling the staff and remains a rock behind the plate. So play him less this year, and put more of the offensive burden on Josh Bard.

If there are no better offers out there, and as of now, there don’t seem to be any other offers out there, these two sides should just get together and hammer this thing out so everyone can get on with their lives.

You know Varitek doesn’t want to put on another uniform. And although the Red Sox are a bit scared by the year Varitek had offensively, they know what he means to the staff, and to the clubhouse.

In an unrelated note, congratulations to Sean Casey on his retirement and move to the MLB Network. Sean is truly one of the great people I’ve ever met in my years of covering baseball. Guys like Sean Casey and Kevin Millar have such a joy for the game, and being around the game, that it’s always a pleasure to cover guys like that. I know that Sean will be a natural on TV, much like Kevin will be whenever he finishes playing.

Ted, Yaz and Jim — Left field trio for ages

Finally, Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame. And finally, the holy trinity of Red Sox left fielders is truly complete.

Think about this. Three Hall of Fame left fielders who played their entire career with one team, one succeeding the other. I am going to say it right now. This will never happen again.

I am now a sportswriter but when I was in my youth, growing up in the Boston area, I enjoyed the heck out of watching Jim Rice play baseball. I’ve never seen someone produce such swift bat action with their wrists. What a strong man he was. He played hard, he played hurt, and he smoked the ball, just about every day.

Yes, there were some double plays, particularly in the mid ’80s. But there were a whole lot more screaming line drives. He could also play left field. People forget this. This guy developed into a strong defensive player at Fenway Park, where he truly mastered The Wall.

Listening to him speak the last two days, it is unbelievable how relaxed and happy he has become. Jim always put up that front of insecurity, but it has been utterly gone the last two days.

I was at the game in 1982 when a little boy got nailed in the head by a Dave Stapleton line drive. The kid was bleeding and fans were in stunned silence, not knowing quite what to do. Jim Rice never flinched. He hopped out of the dugout, reached into the stands to grab the kid and got him into the clubhouse immediately to get looked at by the doctors. A young Theo Epstein was also at this game, and referred to it yesterday. I hadn’t thought about that moment in years, but when Theo mentioned it, the memories immediately flooded back of Rice so heroically handling the situation.

Now, he is a Hall of Famer, and for those who watched him every day for most of his career, it is nice to see.

I’m looking forward to the night when No. 14 goes on the right-field facade next year. Hopefully they can do some re-arranging with the numbers so the sequence is 9, 8 and 14.

Stockpiling arms

Another day, another Red Sox signing. Since Christmas, Theo Epstein has added Josh Bard, Brad Penny, Rocco Baldelli, John Smoltz, Mark Kotsay and Takashi Saito.

Saito is an interesting one, considering the dominant numbers he has put up during his three years in the Majors. Obviously health was a concern in 2008, which is why the Dodgers non-tendered him.

But the Red Sox now have a ton of options in the bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon, Saito, Okajima, Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez, Javier Lopez. All of those arms are of the quality variety.

This begs the question:  Will there be a trade in the works in which Theo can move one of these relievers to help fill another need on the club? It certainly appears that way. Don’t be surprised if one of these setup men is part of a package in a trade for a catcher. The Red Sox certainly have depth, that has become abundantly clear.

Saito will be 39 in February, which of course raises questions about his future durability. But in the context of this year, if he can stay healthy, it gives the Sox great insurance should Jonathan Papelbon need some rest during the season.

By the end of the ALCS, Papelbon admitted that he was just about spent. With the addition of Saito, and the continued emergence of Masterson, perhaps they can be even more conservative with him then they’ve been since the arm scare of 2006.

Of Rocco and Smoltz .. and a Penny for my thoughts

Finally, the 2009 Red Sox have begun to take shape with the only real ambiguity now whether Jason Varitek or someone else splits catching duties with Josh Bard.

Let’s start with the feel-good story of the day, the official news that the Red Sox have signed Rocco Baldelli, the pride of Cumberland, R.I. Well, let’s see, the Red Sox were looking for a fourth outfielder with pop in his bat and the ability to play all three OF positions. Enter Rocco, who does all those things. The difference is that Baldelli, when right, is a starting-caliber player. And given that J.D. Drew will probably miss three weeks to a month at some point during the year — no knock, J.D., that’s just who you are! — it is very valuable depth.

Obviously Baldelli’s health is an issue, but it sounds like progress has been made in determining why he was experiencing such excessive fatigue and how to combat it. If he stays on the field, this is a terrific signing. Baldelli and Theo Epstein will talk about the signing later today, prior to the Boston Baseball Writers Dinner.

Now, to John Smoltz. The veteran righty has long been one of my favorite pitchers to watch because, much like guys like Curt Schilling and David Wells, no stage is too big for him. Smoltz craves the big moment. Though the Red Sox obviously came through with a far better financial offer than the Braves, I wouldn’t be surprised if the allure of winning for a big market team had just as much to do with this highly-competitive athlete finishing his career somewhere other than Atlanta.

As for Mr. Brad Penny, if I had said a year ago or even two years ago, who would you rather have as your No. 4 starter, Penny or Burnett, I think a lot of you would have said Penny. He has always had tremendous stuff, but last year he obviously had arm problems and might have even clashed with management a little. If that was just his one down year — kind of like the one Mike Lowell had for the Marlins in 2005 — this could be one of the best signings of the winter, considering the price.

Now, Theo figures to spend his remaining weeks before Spring Training trying to find a catcher, or just keeping the old one. Personally, I hope they can keep Varitek. I think he means a lot to that team, both from a stability standpoint and with game preparation. But I do think Jason would need to come to grips with the fact that Josh Bard is going to pinch-hit for him quite a bit, and that he figures to get closer to 90 or 100 starts than the 120 he’s been accustomed to.

All for now. Talk to you in a bit. I’ll be live from the Writers Dinner tonight.

Ian.

Getting antsy

For my entire baseball-watching life, the turn of a new year was always the time I started to get antsy for baseball season. Now is no different.

I remember when I was a kid — on those rare years when it was warm after Christmas — I would be happy if I could go outside and break in the new glove. This year, with the snow and the ice, was not fit for such an occasion.

So instead, we sit back and wonder what the 2009 Red Sox will look like when it all starts anew in Fort Myers next month.

No, the Red Sox didn’t spend $420 million on free agents like the Yankees did. Instead, they plunked down $5 million on Brad Penny, another $1.7 on Josh Bard and invested $40.5 million in Dustin Pedroia’s future.

I still like the look of this team, but I’ll feel better once I know who the catcher is going to be.

A big key to the success of the ’09 team will be how well Lowell, Ortiz and Beckett rebound from their injuries. If those three guys get anywhere close to ’07 form, this will be a dangerous, dangerous team.

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