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Mirabelli signs for two years

Backup catcher, 34, to earn $3 million

Hard as they tried, the Red Sox were unable to dissuade Gabe Kapler from bolting to Japan. But they made sure another key bench player will return next season when they enticed Doug Mirabelli to sign a two-year contract worth $3 million, the richest deal of his career.

The agreement, initially described as a one-year pact, makes Mirabelli the highest-paid backup catcher in the majors and may give the Sox a bit more leverage in trying to retain Jason Varitek, their prized starting catcher. Varitek and Mirabelli have developed one of the best professional relationships on the team and often joked last season about entering free agency as a tandem.

"We said we were a package deal, and I still want to it to be that way," Mirabelli said. "You can't lose Varitek, regardless of what the situation is. The guy was the leader on our team. If you don't have Varitek, you don't have that team."

Mirabelli, 34, could have waited for the market to more fully develop after he attracted significant interest in his first experience as a free agent. Numerous teams expressed interest in him as a backup. Several wanted him to serve in a platoon role, and a couple envisioned him as a starter. But the Sox, who could ill afford to lose both their catchers, persuaded Mirabelli to return by presenting him an offer too lucrative to resist.

The value of Mirabelli's new contract nearly equals the $3.1 million he has earned since he broke into the majors with the Giants in 1996. After making $825,000 last year, he will receive $1.4 million each of the next two seasons plus a $200,000 signing bonus. He is the first of the team's 16 free agents to re-sign.

"I know they didn't want to let me go, and I didn't want to go," Mirabelli said. "Both sides made it pretty easy."

While Mirabelli could assume an expanded role next season if Varitek signs elsewhere, he found it hard to envision such a scenario. Still, the Sox included performance clauses in his contract so he would earn more if his role expands, with or without Varitek on the team. He will continue to be Tim Wakefield's regular catcher, easing the burden of handling the knuckleballer for Varitek or his replacement.

"I had to think about what was best for me and my family," Mirabelli said. "And we love it in Boston."

Mirabelli established himself as one of the game's premier backup catchers last season, the best of his career. He posted career highs in batting average (.281), runs (27), RBIs (32), on-base percentage (.368), and slugging percentage (.525) over 59 games, including 41 starts. He credited the time he was able to spend studying opposing pitchers in part for his success.

If the Sox are unable to retain Varitek, they could acquire a lefthanded-hitting catcher to platoon with Mirabelli, who has hit .280 in his career against lefthanders and .228 against righthanders, though he improved on both marks last season, batting .311 against lefties and .270 against righties.

Varitek, 32, also submitted a career year last season, recording an array of personal bests, including batting average (.296), on-base percentage (.390), hits (137), and steals (10). The top catcher on the free agent market, Varitek and the Sox continue to try to close a wide gap. Varitek initially sought $55 million over five years, and the Sox asked him to accept $36 million over four.

"If he's not back," Mirabelli said, "it would be hard to believe." . . .
Eighteen days after teams could begin making financial offers to any free agent, Pedro Martinez has received his first proposal from a club other than the Sox. Several news outlets reported last night that the Mets have offered Martinez a three-year contract worth about $38 million, and Newsday said the Mets also offered the three-time Cy Young Award winner a vesting option for a fourth year. Mets general manager Omar Minaya, who met Martinez over dinner on Thanksgiving in the Dominican Republic, opened a new phase in the former Sox ace's free agency by effectively topping Boston's offers. Martinez has expressed interest in returning to the National League if he were unable to reach an agreement with the Sox, and he has fared well at Shea Stadium, going 5-1 with a 1.17 ERA. He is 7-4 with a 3.00 ERA at Yankee Stadium.

While the Cardinals and Angels remain prospective suitors, Martinez has inspired the most interest in New York in his effort to squeeze the best possible deal out of the Sox. The Mets could help his cause by setting off a bidding war with the Yankees, though the Yankees initially seem more interested in determining whether they can trade for Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks.

Martinez has balked at two offers from the Sox. The first would have guaranteed him $25.5 million over two years with a $13 million option for 2007 and $2 million in potential performance bonuses. The second would guarantee the $13 million option if he were to remain healthy.

Despite the offer from the Mets, the Sox appear poised to stand pat. While they may further tweak their proposal, they believe they accurately have gauged Martinez's value and plan to resist engaging in a costly bidding war. . . .
The Red Sox victory tour continues today when the World Series trophy arrives in Manchester, N.H., for a series of appearances, including stops at the New Hampshire Veterans Home at 9 a.m., and City Hall from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A public rally is scheduled for 3 p.m. at Veterans Park, with Alan Embree scheduled to appear with a number of elected officials, including Governor Craig Benson, Governor-elect John Lynch, and Manchester Mayor Bob Baines.

The trophy also will appear at Thursday's Christmas tree lighting on Boston Common, scheduled for 6:30-8 p.m. 

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