As a ``by the way" moment, it will be hard to trump this one from Terry Francona during his usual postmortem in the Red Sox' interview room at Fenway Park.
Winding up an answer about Josh Beckett's performance in yesterday's 1-0 win over the Kansas City Royals, the Sox manager said, ``He threw the ball so well that I think Theo [Epstein] just gave him a three-year deal."
There was laughter in the room.
``No, I'm serious," Francona said. ``If he pitches good next time, he might get six years."
The delivery was so deadpan that a reporter started to ask Francona a question on another subject, before it occurred to somebody else that the manager wasn't joking. ``Wait a minute, are you serious?" Francona was asked.
Yes, he said, he was.
The offbeat way in which it was delivered should in no way detract from the significance of the message. By coming to terms on a three-year contract extension for a guaranteed $30 million, with a $12 million club option for a fourth season in 2010 that automatically vests if Beckett makes a certain number of starts, the Red Sox have identified the pitcher they expect to lead their staff in the future, especially with Curt Schilling intending to retire when his contract expires after the 2007 season.
``We think his best days are ahead of him," Epstein said of the 26-year-old righthander, who would have been eligible for free agency after the 2007 season, ``and his best days are really, really good.
``I think he really enjoys the experience here. He's going to get another contract when he's 30 years old. This works for both sides. He gets security up front; we get a contract that we can work with."
Beckett, meanwhile, elected to forgo testing a free agent market for pitchers that last winter rewarded lesser achievers such as A.J. Burnett, Beckett's former teammate with the Marlins now with the Blue Jays, and Kevin Millwood of the Rangers with five-year, $55 million contracts.
``I want to play here," Beckett said. ``I don't need to break the bank. I'll be 30 years old if this deal draws all the way out to the option. It was a no-brainer. It made them happy and made me happy."
The deal, the final details of which were concluded between Epstein and Beckett's agent, Michael Moye, Tuesday night, breaks down as follows:
A $2 million signing bonus.
Salaries of $6 million in 2007, $9.5 million in 2008, $10.5 million in 2009.
A club option of $12 million in 2010, which vests if Beckett makes 28 starts in 2009 or a total of 56 starts in 2008 and '09. There is a $2 million buyout if the option is not vested, or exercised.
A standard awards package, one in which Beckett will receive additional compensation if he finishes first to fifth in the voting for the Cy Young Award, and bonuses for other awards.
Consistent with club policy, the contract does not contain a no-trade clause.
``This gives me security," Beckett said. ``Obviously, I don't know that I'm going to be here for three years because there isn't a no-trade clause, they don't do stuff like that. But as long as I do my job, they're going to want me to be here. They're not going to ship me off. They wouldn't have signed me to this deal if they didn't want me here pitching for them.
``Once you see the numbers, you're going to see that I didn't go for top dollar. I wanted to play here. I've already made quite a bit of money in this game. God's been good, I've got smart people working for me. I think everybody will see we definitely took a deal that made both of us happy."
Beckett is now 12-5, tied with Toronto's Roy Halladay for the American League lead in wins, and lowered his ERA to 4.78 with his dominant, eight-inning, four-hit, seven-strikeout, no-walk effort against the Royals.
The Texas native, who in spring training said he did not expect to begin talks on a new contract until after the season nor did he expect the club to broach the topic until then, said he was first approached by Francona about a new deal when the club was in Florida to play Tampa Bay in the first week of July. That, in itself, is unusual.
``Me and Tito talked about it," Beckett said. ``I talked to him again in Chicago. He kind of orchestrated it, getting their end going, and I orchestrated our end going. He came to me and I was kind of surprised at first because I always heard they don't do deals in season."
As a rule they don't, though there have been some notable exceptions, including David Ortiz and Coco Crisp this season.
Beckett is being paid $4.325 million this season, agreeing to terms in February after filing for salary arbitration. He asked for $4.9 million, the club submitted a figure of $3.75 million, and the sides agreed on the midpoint. Plagued by blisters and shoulder problems of sufficient concern to the Sox last winter that there was some debate whether to proceed with the trade from the Marlins after looking at an MRI of his pitching shoulder, Beckett has made all 20 of his scheduled starts this season, a total matched by Schilling (who pitches today), and his 122 1/3 innings and 102 strikeouts are second only to Schilling (134 1/3 IP, 124 Ks) on the Sox' staff.
At his current pace, Beckett is on track to set career highs in innings, wins, and strikeouts. The biggest concern about his performances has been the number of home runs he has allowed (27), most in the majors. But Epstein in recent interviews has maintained the club believes that it is a statistical anomaly.
``He's young, he's got a great arm, and he's a competitor," said catcher Doug Mirabelli, who was behind the plate yesterday. ``I think that all contributed to the signing. You need guys like that in the rotation, especially here in Boston and in the AL East. He's a guy you can build your pitching staff around, for sure. He's done a lot in his career already. But he's got the makeup to continue doing what he's doing and be successful."