ORLANDO, Fla. -- In the end, one major league general manager speculated Tuesday, whether Victor Martinez returns to the Boston Red Sox will probably depend on whether the team is willing to give the free-agent catcher a four-year deal, and he doubts the Sox are.
Regardless, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein gave the strongest sign to date that the team would be willing to go into the 2011 season with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the only catcher with big league experience on the roster, as its No. 1 catcher.
Epstein's endorsement of Saltalamacchia on Tuesday dovetailed with reports that the Florida Marlins were about to sign free-agent catcher John Buck, who projected as the second-best option to Martinez on the market. The Red Sox liked Buck, according to league sources, but not at the price -- a reported three-year deal in the $15 million-$16 million range -- that the Marlins evidently are willing to pay for him. The Sox anticipated Buck's price would reach a range they weren't willing to enter.
Asked whether he would be comfortable with Saltalamacchia opening the season as the No. 1 catcher, Epstein said:
"We'll probably have a more experienced guy than him on the roster as well, but I think we're comfortable with him in a role anywhere from backup to job share to everyday guy, depending on how the rest of the club shapes up," Epstein said. "We like him. Obviously we liked him from a scouting standpoint. We took an opportunity to buy low after he'd been through a rough period.
"He really impressed the staff, which had no vested interest in it. He really opened some eyes, from the manager [Terry Francona] to [catching instructor and bullpen coach] Gary Tuck to the pitching coach. The way he handled the pitchers, the way he threw, the way he conducted himself in the clubhouse, he was impressive to everybody.
"At some point you've got to give a chance to young players, let them build value, and he's one of those guys. [Jed] Lowrie is potentially another. [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 you can turn to."
Epstein's mentioning of Lowrie and Kalish also is notable within the context of the potential loss of free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre and the possibility that the team will not sign one of the two elite free-agent outfielders, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth. Lowrie could become a candidate to be the everyday third baseman, while Kalish could bid for an everyday outfield job.
It would seem unlikely the Red Sox are prepared to give all three positions to relatively untested newcomers, but Saltalamacchia is sounding like the best bet of the three.
"Yeah, you may be taking an educated gamble," Epstein said, "but you're also potentially building a lot of value in those guys, giving them an opportunity to put themselves in the core we're developing.
"It's a little harder to do at catcher sometimes, unless that player has the attributes you're looking for: a catcher who cares about his pitching staff, can call a good game, and works hard and prepares. He does fit that criteria. Obviously, he's coming off the surgery [to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb], which makes it a little risky. But he hits right-handed pitching at this point better than left-handed pitching, which makes it easier to find a complement. There are more right-handed-hitting catchers out there. We'll see what evolves."
Among the right-handed-hitting catchers available as free agents are veterans Yorvit Torrealba, Rod Barajas, Gerald Laird, Jason LaRue and Miguel Olivo. The Sox also could explore trade possibilities; the Pirates' switch-hitting Ryan Doumit and the Dodgers' Russell Martin have been mentioned as possible targets.
Seven or eight clubs are interested in Martinez, according to one baseball source, including the Red Sox, who have not been especially aggressive in their pursuit. The Detroit Tigers, who are seeking a middle-of-the-order bat and a complement to young catcher Alex Avila, have significant interest in Martinez, who could also DH and play some first base, but they're hardly alone. Texas and Baltimore have been identified as other potentially strong suitors.
Beltre's agent, Scott Boras, was here, with one baseball source saying Beltre was commanding significant interest even from clubs that typically don't spend big on free agents. One GM said his club was not in the market for Beltre because he believes the third baseman prefers a West Coast team. The Angels are believed to have strong interest in Beltre, but they're also expected to be big players for Crawford, and it remains to be seen whether they could afford both.
That could be a scenario, one GM said, in which Beltre could wind up back with the Red Sox, especially if no other West Coast team steps up. The Athletics made a run at Beltre last winter but he turned them down, even though they offered more money, and there has been some speculation that the Mariners, who did not re-sign Beltre last winter, would take another go at him, although Beltre's performance offensively suffered in Safeco Field.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.