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There's no catch -- Varitek should accept offer

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 27, 2009 01:15 PM

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If you’re Jason Varitek, all that remains at this moment are degrees of unhappiness. One way or another, you’re not coming out of this satisfied. The only real question concerns the object of your frustration.

Your employers?

Or your agent?

Eleven-and-a-half seasons after he first put on a Boston uniform, Varitek now faces a Friday deadline to accept or decline the Red Sox’ latest offer. According to a baseball source, the club last week presented Varitek with two choices: a straight one-year, $5 million contract that will allow the player to become a free agent again next season; or a one-year, $5 million deal that includes a dual option for 2010.

If the Red Sox exercise that option after the season, Varitek would earn another $5 million in 2010.

If the Sox do not, Varitek then has the option of returning for $3 million.

Certainly, these are frustrating times for the Red Sox captain, who currently seems to be enduring more than any one person should. Following a season during which he broke up with his wife, Varitek now is seeing his relationship with the Sox suffer as well. The latter is all that should really matter to those invested in the public trust that the Red Sox have long since become, and it raises questions as to precisely what (if anything) went wrong during what has been a seemingly interminable winter-long negotiation.

Let’s start at the most obvious point: Varitek batted .220 last year, a mere .187 after May 21. For a soon-to-be 37-year-old entering free agency in the midst of a historic economic crisis, numbers like .220 and .187 leave you with few (if any) assets to leverage against. Bernard Madoff had more currency to deal with than Varitek did, and we all know where he ended up.

All of this brings us to superagent Scott Boras, who tried mightily to drum up a market for Varitek by citing things like the player’s leadership and "winnability,’’ the latter of which further stressed the catcher's considerable intangibles. Those same skills are why teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers expressed some interest in the player, right up until the Red Sox ensured themselves of a compensatory first-round draft selection from any club that signed Varitek by offering him salary arbitration.

At that moment, Varitek and Boras had two choices:

  • First, they could accept arbitration, thereby assuring Varitek of a 2009 salary in the vicinity $10 million, essentially his earnings last year;
  • Second, they could turn down arbitration and roll the dice in a market that, as it turns out, was heading into a nosedive.

Clearly, they chose poorly.

In recent days, arguments have been made that arbitration might have resulted in a non-guaranteed contract for the player, a technical truth. The real question is whether it ever would have come to that. Sox general manager Theo Epstein never has taken a player to arbitration during his tenure, and it seems highly unlikely that he would alter that course to go through a distasteful process with the team captain. The far more likely scenario is that Varitek would have agreed to a guaranteed contract worth more than $5 million, meaning the player lost money the day he passed on arbitration.

In the end, after all, an agent’s job is to understand the market and maximize his player’s value, something Boras generally has done with extraordinary success during his career. But the agent certainly seems to have erred on this one -- and that is putting it kindly -- which is why there is now a great deal of spin taking place on all fronts.

Funny, isn’t it?

During the Mark Teixeira negotiations, Boston owner John Henry fired off a missive in which he all but accused Boras of bluffing, sealing any chance at a Red Sox deal and effectively handing Teixeira to the Yankees. The Red Sox whiffed badly.

Now, Boras looks like the one who missed the boat, leading to criticism of the manner in which he handled a negotiation.

As for the Red Sox, the $5 million offer to Varitek might have been perceived as a slap in the face under far different circumstances. That all changed the day baseball long ago became a business, and it changed again -- with regard to this particular negotiation -- the moment that longtime Yankees lefthander Andy Pettitte ended up with a guaranteed $5.5 million salary for 2009 after seeking as much as $16 million (his salary last year) and turning down $10 million (New York’s initial offer this offseason).

In that way, Pettitte’s agents, the Hendricks brothers, made the same mistake Boras did.

For a moment, purely for effect, let’s imagine the opposite of this scenario -- a market in which Varitek’s value went up after turning down arbitration. Out of the goodness of their hearts, would Varitek and Boras now give the Red Sox the benefit of the doubt? (Varitek might. The agent? Not so much.) The bottom line is that baseball is business and business is baseball, and the Red Sox now have much of the leverage, despite the fact that they still do not have a starting catcher.

For his good, Varitek should take the $5 million from the Red Sox and get on with his preparations for the 2009 season because he isn’t going to get more from anyone else at this stage.

Between now and next fall, when Varitek might be a free agent again, Boras should explore ways to make up the lost earnings for his client, who deserved far better in all of this than he got.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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