Stymied in their quest to re-sign Jason Varitek, the Red Sox last night made substantial progress in filling another void behind the plate as they reached a tentative agreement to retain Doug Mirabelli, one of the game's premier backup catchers. The final details were expected to be wrapped up early next week.
Mirabelli, a free agent for the first time, appeared poised to nearly double his salary from the $825,000 he earned last season. While serving primarily as Tim Wakefield's personal catcher, Mirabelli set career highs in batting average (.281), runs (27), RBIs (32), on-base percentage (.368), and slugging percentage (.525).
The Sox reached the tentative accord while a number of teams eyed Mirabelli as a prospective backup amid significant movement in the catching ranks. In recent days, the Brewers signed Oakland free agent Damian Miller, the Twins picked up Florida free agent Mike Redmond, the Angels exercised Bengie Molina's option, and the A's were close to acquiring Jason Kendall from the Pirates for lefthanders Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes.
Though the Sox placed a high priority on retaining Mirabelli, they have no plans to significantly expand his backup role and remain committed to pursuing Varitek, the top catcher on the free agent market. The Sox have offered Varitek about $36 million over four years while he has sought $55 million over five years, and the sides may need a while to resolve their differences. (With the Sox expected to offer Varitek salary arbitration by Dec. 7, he would have until Dec. 19 to decide whether to accept. If he were to reject the offer, the sides would have until Jan. 8 to reach a deal or forfeit their rights to negotiate until May 1.)
Mirabelli, who turned 34 Oct. 18, has paid major dividends since former general manager Dan Duquette acquired him from the Rangers for farmhand Justin Duchscherer June 12, 2001. It was the same day Varitek underwent season-ending surgery after he fractured his right elbow making a sensational catch of a foul pop at Fenway Park.
A positive force in the clubhouse, Mirabelli last season caught all but 2 1/3 innings of Wakefield's 188 1/3-inning workload. As a consequence, Mirabelli led the league in passed balls (15) and caught only eight of 46 runners stealing, a 17.4 percent success rate. But he made only two errors (Varitek also committed only two) as the Sox catchers matched their counterparts with the A's and Mariners for the league's best fielding percentage (.997).
The baseball world got a sense of the challenge Mirabelli faces in catching Wakefield when Varitek committed three passed balls working with the knuckleballer in the 13th inning of Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. But for all his work with Wakefield, Mirabelli also caught every other regular Sox pitcher last season, including Curt Schilling, who logged a 1.17 ERA in 15 1/3 innings with Mirabelli behind the plate, Alan Embree (0.69 ERA in 13 2/3 innings), and Keith Foulke (2.30 ERA in 15 2/3 innings). Sox pitchers posted a 4.19 ERA with Varitek and a 4.26 mark with Mirabelli.
Mirabelli, who has logged six years of major league service without landing on the disabled list, led all AL catchers who appeared in at least 40 games last season with his .525 slugging percentage. The only Sox regulars with a higher slugging percentage were Manny Ramirez (.613) and David Ortiz (.603).
Mirabelli, who appeared in 59 games last season, hit .305 with nine homers and 29 RBIs in his 41 starts. . . .
The Sox rank among the leading candidates to be named Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen of the Year. The winner will be announced on Ch. 25 tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. The Sox would be the third team to receive the honor since the magazine's Sportsman of the Year progam was established in 1954, joining the 1980 US Olympic men's hockey team and 1999 US women's World Cup championship team. The only Sox player to receive the honor was Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Schilling, who recently was named the magazine's major league player of the year, shared the Sportsman of the Year honors in 2001 with his Arizona Diamondbacks teammate, Randy Johnson . . . Sox manager Terry Francona plans to hit the speaking circuit next week as he joins the rest of the organization in reaping the benefits of the world championship. "I'll be a little busier," he said, "but it's nice to have a chance to make a little extra money this winter." Francona said his emotions during the championship run were difficult to describe. "When we were coming back against the Yankees, I was having the time of my life," he said. "When it was over, it felt like Christmas. You rush up to it, and then it's gone." He said he has shifted much of his focus to preparing for next season . . . The Arizona Fall League has completed play and none of the Sox farmhands were ranked among the top 20 prospects in the league by Baseball America. The publication rated Tampa Bay minor league outfielder Delmon Young the top prospect. Boston's first pick in the June draft, shortstop Dustin Pedroia, fared well, batting .278 with a .375 on-base percentage in 28 games for the Scottsdale Scorpions. Former West Roxbury High star Manny Delcarmen went 3-2 with a 3.60 ERA in 12 relief appearances for the Peoria Saguaros as he continued his comeback from Tommy John elbow surgery.