BOSTON -- The year began with catcher Victor Martinez saying that he preferred to sign a long-term deal with the Red Sox rather than test free agency.
Now that the season is over, Martinez still says his first choice is to stay here, and GM Theo Epstein says he and the Red Sox would like to keep him, but with the Sox electing to let Martinez go to free agency, moving on looms as a much stronger possibility.
And Martinez sounded intrigued about testing the waters.
“This is the opportunity every player dreams about, to go out in free agency,’’ he said. “Early in the season I made it clear I didn’t want to be part of free agency. But they [the Red Sox] gave me a chance with the season over [to be a free agent], so I think it’s fair for me and everybody to see what happens.’’
Martinez also appears to have softened his position about only wanting to catch. Asked if a team wanting him as a catcher would have more appeal than another thinking of using him in a variety of roles, Martinez said, “You know what? I’ll do anything. I just want to go and win. I do want to win. I’ll do anything I have to do to make a team better, but the only thing I ask is be treated fair.
“I’m young enough. I work really hard. I just want to win. I want to put a ring on my finger.’’
Despite missing more than a month with a broken thumb, Martinez put up another outstanding season offensively, much in line with his career performance. He finished with a .302 batting average, just above his career average of .299 coming into 2010, placing him 10th in the American League and second to Minnesota’s Joe Mauer (.327) among all big-league catchers.
Martinez’s .844 OPS (on-base plus slugging) also was second to Mauer (.871), and his 20 home runs were tied with Toronto’s John Buck, one fewer than Atlanta’s Brian McCann. His 79 RBIs led all catchers.
The flip side was his performance defensively. Teams ran at will against the Red Sox. Martinez threw out just 17 of 133 baserunners attempting to steal, or 14.7 percent. The impression the Red Sox have left is that they were hesitant to commit to Martinez because they weren’t sure he was their permanent successor to Jason Varitek as catcher.
But Epstein was effusive in his praise of Martinez on Sunday, though he hedged when asked if he was comfortable with Martinez as the team’s catcher.
“At this point, now that he’s eligible for free agency, I’ll probably put that in the category of things we should just probably talk about with him,’’ Epstein said, “because it touches upon negotiations and whatnot.
“Vic’s done an unbelievable job since he’s been here. When we got him in a trade we knew we were getting a first-class person, someone who prioritized winning, and a natural hitter. But I don’t think we quite understood the impact he would have here. He’s done a great job and we’d love to see the relationship continue. We’ll see what happens.’’
Asked if he’d seen improvement in Martinez defensively, Epstein said, “From where he was in April to where he was in September, I don’t think there was any comparison. He worked really hard at it, he made some improvements, worked with Gary Tuck and did a great job of leading the pitching staff all year.’’
Martinez said the uncertainty of not knowing where he would be playing come February was weird.
“I know for sure I’m going to have a job somewhere,’’ he said. “That’s the question. Somewhere, I just don’t know. Like I’ve been saying, let’s see what happens. It’s time to wait now and go back home, relax, enjoy my family, and go from there.’’
Still, he remained adamant that re-signing with Boston is his first choice.
“It is, it definitely is,’’ he said. “This is a great place to play. Man, these fans are great. Sometimes I feel a little tired, but as soon as I see those fans get loud, it’s like you don’t get tired. They get you going, it’s amazing.
“For me, it’s an honor to play here and wear this uniform and be in front of these great fans. If they’re not the best, they’re one of the best in sports. We’ll see what happens. Like I say, I’ll do anything.’’