Epstein plans to be 'selective shopper'

Epstein plans to be 'selective shopper'

BOSTON -- Put Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein under the category of "selective shopper" during this free-agent season, which officially begins Friday, when players are eligible to sign with any team.

"We'll assess all of the players who are free agents and try to assign a value to them and pursue them and see if they fit," said Epstein. "Often times, those players get priced out of their value point for us, but we'll see if there's any that make sense."

The most pressing free-agent matter for the Red Sox is determining if they can keep one of their own. It's hard to imagine Boston without catcher Jason Varitek, given everything he's meant to the club over the last decade.

But Varitek will be 37 in the first month of the 2009 season and is coming off the worst offensive season of his career. The Red Sox would like to bring their captain back, but probably under a much shorter-term commitment than agent Scott Boras is currently seeking for his client.

Epstein knows the importance of Varitek to the pitching staff and to winning, but he has always been a firm believer in assigning a value to a player and sticking to it.

Under that system, the Red Sox were able to retain Varitek last time he was a free agent. They were also able to keep Mike Lowell last winter, and David Ortiz multiple times over the years. But others -- Johnny Damon and Pedro Martinez come to mind -- have gone on to greener pastures.

"He's an important part of the organization -- there's no doubt about that," Epstein recently said of Varitek. "Obviously, he's coming off a year that wasn't his best, but he's important nonetheless. Now he's a free agent and we'll be talking to him. We have an obligation to explore all our options. We do that with every position."

Other than catcher, which is very much the front-burner issue for the Red Sox at the start of this Hot Stove season, Boston doesn't have any desperate needs.

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"We can now be selective shoppers," Epstein said. "Last offseason was great, because we didn't have to be desperate. We built up the organization where we don't have desperation in free agency. The same thing this year, it'll be now about being smart, finding value and being selective -- maybe aggressive in some areas, but selective."

In other words, Epstein will do plenty of window shopping. Mark Teixeira is a hitter who would help any team. However, he's a first baseman and the Red Sox have a productive player there already in Kevin Youkilis. Still, it is in Epstein's nature to explore every scenario, and that will probably apply to Teixeira.

"[No major moves] could be the case, but we could also do something big," Epstein said. "We have the ability to survey the field, play the offseason game and do what we think is right without having to do any one thing."

The Red Sox have starting-caliber players under contract at every position. In some areas -- particularly center field and shortstop -- they have two potential starters.

One area Epstein always loves to bulk up is starting pitching. Sure, the Red Sox have Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield and two talented young pitchers (Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson) who should be in the running for a rotation slot.

But it's an area in which Epstein feels "the more the merrier."

CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett figure to be a little beyond Epstein's assigned value.

There is always the chance at a Red Sox reunion for Derek Lowe, who was a key member of Boston's staff from 1998-2004. However, Lowe, whose durability and postseason reputation make him attractive, could also come with a lofty price tag.

"You look at our starting pitching," Epstein said. "We bring back our starting core and make minor tweaks, I think we can be strong with that. That said, is there an opportunity to improve our starting pitching? Absolutely. We'll probably spend a great deal of our time this winter trying to figure out how to improve."

As much time as Epstein will spend exploring the market, he'll also try to create long-term stability from within.

Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon and Jason Bay are all players the Red Sox could talk to about long-term contracts.

If the Red Sox didn't make a major transaction between now and Opening Day, they would probably still be considered a favorite to win the World Series in 2009.

However, Epstein is all but certain to log about as many cellphone minutes as he does every winter.

"Looking at the caliber of our league and our division reinforces the notion that we need to strive to improve," said Epstein. "It will be essential that we continue the process we started several years ago to become younger and more dynamic. These days, if you're not becoming younger and more dynamic, you're probably falling behind."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.