By Sean McAdam
Over the course of back-and-forth contract proposals late in the 2010 season, the Red Sox got a sense of just how far apart they were with catcher Victor Martinez.
Martinez, heading for free agency, was looking for a long-term deal, better even than the last one signed by another American League catcher known for his offense: Jorge Posada of the New York Yankees. Posada's last deal with the Yankees, signed after the 2007 season, ran for four years and 52.4 million. Martinez asked for five years and 65 million.
The Red Sox, in stark contrast, opened with a bid of two years, 20 million.
At the time, the gap was so significant, it seemed a virtual certainty to both sides that Martinez would likely take a deal elsewhere.
Tuesday, he did, agreeing to a four-year, 50 million contract from the Detroit Tigers.
Over time, the Sox and Martinez edged closer to one another, with the Red Sox improving their final offer to four years, 42 million Monday, a slight improvement over a four-year, 40 million deal that had been on the table for a while.
But there wasn't enough movement to meet in the middle, or to top the Tigers' bid, who were regarded by many in the game as the favorites to sign Martinez.
According to industry sources, the Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners were also in the bidding.
Martinez, obtained from the Cleveland Indians at the trade deadline in 2009 in exchange for pitcher Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price, supplied good production for the Sox over a season and a third.
He knocked in 41 runs over 56 games in the final two months of 2009, and in 2010, despite missing five weeks with a broken thumb, hit 20 homers and knocked in 79 runs while hitting .302.
But his defense was an issue, especially early in the 2010 season when opposing runners ran unchecked on the bases.
The Sox were concerned that, over the course of a longer deal, Martinez's defense would continue to deteriorate to the point where he would have to be transitioned out from behind the plate and converted to a first baseman or DH. Worse, the Red Sox would be paying Martinez All-Star catcher money to someone delivering average production at first base or DH.
Maritnez's departure leaves the Red Sox with one catcher with major-league experience on their 40-man roster: Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Saltalamacchia, obtained in a deal a year to the day after Martinez, appeared in just 10 games with the Sox before undergoing season-ending thumb surgery, will be given the chance to nail down the starting catcher's job in spring training.
Though the Sox didn't get much chance to evaluate Saltalamacchia directly after the deal, they scouted him extensively over the years and were impressed with his play in Pawtucket immediately after the deal.
As recently as last week, general manager Theo Epstein said the Sox would be open to having Saltalamacchia as the No. 1 catcher.
"We're comfortable with Saltalamacchia in a role anywhere from backup to job-share to everyday guy,'' said Epstein, "depending on how the rest of the club shapes up. We like him. Obviously, we liked him from a scouting standpoint and we took the opportunity to buy low after he went through a rough period.
"But he really impressed the staff, who had no vested interest in him. He really opened some eyes from the manager to catching instructor Gary Tuck to the pitching coach with the way he handled pitchers, the way he threw, to the way he conducted himself in the clubhouse. He was impressive to everybody.''
Still, the Sox must find another player to help Saltalamacchia handle the load. On the free-agent market the list includes Miguel Olivo, Rod Barajas, Yorvit Torrealba, and, not incidentally, Jason Varitek.
While Olivo in particular may be a better offensive option than Varitek, the former Red Sox captain pairs nicely with Saltalamacchia in this sense: while the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia hits better from the left side (.765 OPS vs. .562 OPS as a right-handed hitter), Varitek remains more of an offensive threat from the right side.
Additionally, Varitek may be best suited among the group to serve as Saltalamacchia's mentor -- teaching him about opposing hitters' tendencies as well as how to best handle the Red Sox pitching staff.