By Sean McAdam
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Beyond their own Victor Martinez, there weren't a lot of catching options on the free-agent market for the Red Sox this winter and one of the ones which did interest them -- at least somewhat -- disappeared when John Buck agreed to a three-year, 18 million deal with the Florida Marlins.
The Red Sox liked Buck and perhaps would have been willing to give him a two-year deal. But the three-year pact -- to say nothing of the money involved -- was more than they were willing to offer.
With little else on the catching market beyond journeyman Miguel Olivo, the Sox might have to trade for catching help if Martinez can't be re-signed. Or they could go with Jarrod Saltalamacchia as their starting catcher.
"We're comfortable with Saltalamacchia in a role anywhere from backup to job-share to everyday guy,'' said Red Sox GM Theo 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.''
Saltalamacchia lacks much major-league experience, having never played more than 93 games in a season. The Sox lost some evaluation time in September when he was found to have a thumb injury, requiring season-ending surgery.
Still, the Sox may be willing to give him the chance to win the job.
"At some point,'' said Epstein, "you've got to give a chance to young players and let them build value. He's one of those guys -- Jed Lowrie is potentially another and Ryan Kalish is potentially another. We're not going to have high-profile solutions to all our needs, so it's good to have those alternatives where you might be taking an educated gamble, but you're also potentially building a lot of value in those guys and giving them an opportunity to put themselves into the core that we're developing.''
Of course, it's one thing to go with an untested infielder or outfielder. But going with a young catcher is a bigger leap of faith, given all the responsibilities at hand.
"It is a little harder to do at catcher sometimes,'' agreed Epstein, "unless the player has those attributes you're looking for -- someone who cares about his pitching staff, someone who calls a good game and works hard and prepares. Saltalamacchia does fit that criteria. Obviously, he's coming off the thumb surgery, which makes it him a little riskier.''
Beyond improving the outfield, another of Epstein's goals this winter is upgrading the bullpen, especially in the set-up area.
There are a number of quality set-up men available, including Scott Downs, Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit. But because of the amount of interest -- and big-market teams such as the Yankees and Phillies intent on improving their bullpen -- Epstein might be forced to go against his instincts and hand out a multiyear deal to one of those relievers.
In the past, Epstein has said that multiyear deals for middle- and set-up relievers are frequently bad investments because performance can be so inconsistent for those pitchers.
"There's a good chance we'll have do one,'' acknowledged Epstein. "I'm not opposed to the right multiyear deal for the right reliever. If it's a reasonable multiyear deal which survives some value to the club and it's a pitcher that gives you a compelling reason to trust going forward, then, sure.
"What we're trying to avoid is the overeaction -- a pitcher who has an up-and-down career who has one good year, then you lock yourself into a three-year deal for that pitcher and it really hamstrings you. That's the thing you want to avoid.
"But no team operates in a vacuum. You can't pick the player, pick the contract you want. You have to be competitive in the marketplace, so you work hard to find the most reasonable deals you can.''
As a hedge against too many gambles, the Sox have already made deals for two relievers at minimal cost -- obtaining Andrew Miller for Dustin Richardson and claiming Taylor Buchholz from Toronto.
"Obviously, they're both low-cost acquisitions,'' said Epstein, "in which we're trying to capture some upside. In Buchholz' case, what he did out of the bullpen a couple of years ago (2.17 ERA in 63 games with Colorado in 2008) was really impressive, from a stuff and performance standpoint.
"In Miller's case, we're excited about the upside that made him a high first-round pick and a top prospect that we still think exists in there somewhere.''
Epstein hinted that newly-hired pitching coach Curt Young will visit with Miller soon to map out a "foundation -- physically, mentally, fundamentally -- so we have a plan. We'll try to build that foundation now so that we get to spring training, he can just go out and perform.''