By Sean McAdam
Even before the free agent bidding process begins in earnest Tuesday at the General Managers' meetings in Orlando, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein emphasized that his first priority this winter is re-signing two of his own free agents, Adrian Beltre and Victor Martinez.
"Victor would certainly be our first choice to be our 2011 catcher and beyond," said Epstein in a conference call with reporters Friday. "He did an outstanding job for us in the year-and-a-half he was here and we'd certainly be comfortable with him coming back and have been pursuing him."
The Sox are monitoring other catching options, including free agent John Buck, but that doesn't preclude focusing on Martinez.
"I know its been portrayed in the media a little bit as if we haven't been pursuing him. But that's really between us and Victor and his agents. We absolutely want this guy back and he knows that. He's known that for a while. We'll see if something can be worked out. Things happen in free agency."
On the matter of Adrian Beltre, Epstein said: "Our first choice for third base for 2001 and beyond would be to bring Adrian Beltre back."
Other topics from Epstein's conference call:
While acknowledging that re-signing Beltre is a priority, Epstein added that he wouldn't have an issue with moving Kevin Youkilis back to third if the Sox found another option for first base.
"If we were presented with a scenario where Youkilis moves back to third, we would be comfortable with that. It's something we've had a dialogue with Youk.
"He sees himself as a third baseman. He came up as a third baseman and he's maintained a lot of the skills that are required to play the position. He's got really good instincts over there. We'd be comfortable if we had to move Youkilis over to third and know that he would do a fine job defensively."
Thanks to an agreement with the Players Association, Major League Baseball moved up some deadlines and timetables this offseason, allowing players to qualify for free agency sooner and begin discussing possible deals quicker.
Epstein said that's already resulted in increased talk, though to date, little in the way of activity.
"There's certainly more discussion," said Epstein, "and I think it has also impacted he trade market as well. There has been probably more engagement than in previous years. Some years, team wait and agents wait to make initial contact around the GM meetings. But this year it seems like there's been more discussion prior to the GM meetings."
In the past, Epstein has advocated against giving out multiyear deals to set-up relievers, believing that their performance is too inconsistent to warrant long-term commitments.
But this year, Epstein acknowledges that teams looking for bullpen help may have to guarantee more than one-year deals.
"It's too difficult to tell this early, to be honest with you," he said. "The nature of initial contact, the first couple of calls between clubs and agents, is certainly different than conversations that occur later in the winter. We'll have to see how that plays out.
The annual winter meetings are almost a month away, but the GM meetings next Tuesday, offer a chance to size up options.
"Typically," said Epstein, "the GM meetings are very helpful to lay the foundation for future deals and the Winter Meetings are even more helpful because that's where you tend to finalize deals or at least get them to the doorstep of completion. There's a lot of information exchanged at the GM meetings. You have all 30 GMs under the same roof, which can only help. It's almost like a starters flag goes off for teams and agents to get serious about the winter. We look forward to it. The calls that you have before the meetings are usually less serious than the calls that you have after the meetings given the fact that you had a chance to meet face to face and can get down to business."
The Sox appear to be one of the few teams set with starting pitchers, with five veterans returning, most earning significant salaries.
"We have to look at the pitching staff separately as it relates to starters and the bullpen," he said. "With respect to starters, we certainly feel like we don't need to do anything. We feel good about the group that we have coming back. It's a stable group that also presents a lot of upside given the talent of the pitchers on the staff and the fact that a few of these guys are coming off years that weren't their best.
"That said, if there is an opportunity to acquire someone who could fundamentally impact our staff and make it even better, we can't rule that out. We have a lot of resources already allocated to our starting staff. You can argue there's a limit to what percentage of your payroll you should dedicate to the starting five alone. We look at every potential opportunity with an open mind and go from there, understanding that it's not an area that we necessarily have to address, which is usually a good thing.
"When you go into the winter needing to acquire a starter or two, it can lead to some difficult outcomes. Whereas if you're set, you can look only at opportunities to get better."
Unsurprisingly, Epstein said upgrading the bullpen is near the top of the team's offseason to-do list.
"We'll acquire at least one reliever, if not more, either through trade or free agency, before the winter's over." vowed Epstein. "We're spending a lot of our time trying to identify the right targets and pursue them in a way that makes sense -- not only for the 2011 club, but possibly beyond as well and make sure that we're set up in the pen going forward as we'd like to think we are in the rotation.
A number of free agent relievers -- including Scott Downs and Jason Frasor -- were pursued by the Sox last July at the trading deadline.
"It's a fairly deep class for relievers, especially non-closing type relievers," he said. "Usually when you have a deep free-agent class at any one position it usually means there's a lot of demand as well because those clubs that are losing the players to free agency are also in the market looking. That seems to be the case this year, too . . . It's an interesting class and there will be a lot of activity there.
Epstein also provided some updates on the physical status of a number of Red Sox veterans who underwent surgical procedures.
Dustin Pedroia (broken foot): Epstein said the second baseman underwent a CT-scan last week and is making "good progress. He's able to stop wearing the protective boot and increase his workouts." Pedroia will be re-evaluated in Boston around Dec. 1.
"The healing is exactly what we he hoped to see," concluded Epstein.
Kevin Youkilis (thumb surgery): Youkilis is "doing really well," said Epstein. "The healing is basically right on schedule."
Jacoby Ellsbury (broken ribs): Epstein described the outfielder as "aysmptomatic." Ellsbury has already begun his off-season conditoning at API in Arizona, "doing his normal routine at API without any concerns."
Mike Cameron (addominal tear): Cameron is "showing steady improvement," and will be visited by members of the medical and training staff at his Atlanta home next week.
The organization must find someone to replace Torey Lovullo as manager at Triple A Pawtucket. Lovullo was hired earlier this week as first base coach for the Toronto Blue Jays.
"We have some internal candidates," said Epstein, who added the team spent part of this week interviewing some candidates from outside the organization.