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For $51m, Sox get go-ahead on Matsuzaka

NAPLES, Fla. -- What did the Red Sox accomplish in outbidding the Yankees and Mets, among others, for the rights to negotiate with Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka?

"If they can sign him, they've got the best pitcher in the market, and he may be the best pitcher in baseball when all is said and done," said one American League general manager last night. "He's got five outstanding pitches.

"Coming over from Japan where he threw a lot of innings and had 18 complete games [including playoffs], I would think this would seem like a vacation to him. It's a lot of money, but if you have it, why not use it on a kid like this? The Yankees have to be sick about this."

With the official announcement last night that the Red Sox had submitted the highest posting bid for Matsuzaka at $51.1 million, and that the bid had been accepted by the pitcher's Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, the Sox have until midnight, Dec. 15, to lock up Matsuzaka. In addition to the AL general manager, other scouts and executives assembled here at the general managers meetings agreed that he is indeed the most talented pitcher in this year's market.

Considering the positive history between Sox GM Theo Epstein and Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras, the Sox' chances of reaching a deal look strong. But the Sox, whose winning bid trumped that of the runner-up Mets ($38 million) by a long shot, were proceeding cautiously last night. Epstein said little except that the team has invited Matsuzaka, his family, and Boras to Boston next week.

Matsuzaka was expected to arrive in Los Angeles today to meet with Boras and his staff and spend a few days there.

The Red Sox have five days upon the completion of a deal with Matsuzaka to send the Seibu Lions the $51.1 million, but according to one major league source, the paperwork on that has already begun.

If the Sox do not reach a deal by the deadline, Matsuzaka will return to Seibu to pitch next season and the posting fee will not be paid by Boston. Matsuzaka, whose current salary in Japan is $3 million, could then be posted again next year.

There are many schools of thought as to how Boras will approach negotiations. One prevalent theory is that he will ask for a three-year deal with a provision for granting Matsuzaka free agency after that time, and the feeling among some GMs is that the asking price might be as high as $16 million per season.

Boras said he began talks with Epstein yesterday but would not outline a timetable for talks or say when Matsuzaka would be visiting Boston. To calculate Matsuzaka's financial impact on the Red Sox, Boras said, he will use Hideki Matsui as a benchmark. Boras said he's heard from Japanese sources that Matsui brings in $21 million per season for the Yankees in advertising and marketing, so he wasn't blown away by the $51.1 million bid.

"The first thing it reflects is the value of one of the world's best pitchers," said Boras. "It reflected his domination in Japan and the WBC [World Baseball Classic]. It will certainly have a great impact on baseball on the field and an impact on internationalizing major league baseball and increasing revenues both in the advertising and marketing area.

"There's going to be a great deal of interest because he's had a great career in Japan, and when and if the time for him to play in the major leagues comes, I think it's going to draw great attention.

"He is a player who comes here with a résumé and a track record that transfers. The hitters who come here, there was always a question about what their power would be, whether 35 home runs and a .350 batting average would transfer in the major leagues. I think Ichiro has demonstrated that a great player in Japan can be a great player here. He has a chance to have an immediate impact on a major league team."

The Sox, meanwhile, likely will try to tie him up for five years, but at somewhere in the $12 million-$13 million range.

"It's tricky," said one GM. "When you invest that kind of fee, you have to go all out to get the deal done. If they are able to spend $50 million for him, they can go the extra mile on his salary."

Former Sox adviser Bill Lajoie, who has watched Matsuzaka on video, said, "Very, very talented pitcher. It's a good move for Boston."

But there have been downsides mentioned. Matsuzaka has pitched more than 1,400 innings in his eight seasons for Seibu. He's had one elbow injury, which was treated without surgery. He pitched 14 complete games this past season and had a vigorous workout regimen that included a lot of throwing.

A former Japanese player who is now a player agent said, "I remember him throwing 200 pitches the day before he started. I believe he still does it. The one good thing is they pitch one day a week there with the six-man rotations, but they throw an awful lot. It's going to be quite a change for him in the majors, where pitchers are on a strict program and pitch count."

Epstein is trying to build a five-man rotation that can produce 1,000 innings. If he can accomplish that, it will take a lot of pressure off the bullpen.

"It's hard to imagine that Matsuzaka would be able to accomplish in terms of complete games what he has in the States, only because we baby pitchers so much," said the AL GM. "But if he can make his 35 starts and throw 220 innings, what a boost for the Red Sox. Then you know the investment is well worth it."

If signed, Matsuzaka would give the Sox three 26-year-old starters in the rotation, along with Jonathan Papelbon and Josh Beckett. Add veterans Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield, and the Sox could have a formidable starting rotation, with possible insurance in Matt Clement and 22-year-old Jon Lester, who is being treated for cancer.

There's also the possibility that Epstein will attempt to sign another starter (there were talks scheduled with free agent Adam Eaton yesterday) unless he makes a quick signing with Matsuzaka. If talks should go down to the deadline and stall, it may be difficult for them to acquire a starter that late in the proceedings.

Both Mets GM Omar Minaya and Yankees GM Brian Cashman took last night's announcement in stride. Both congratulated Epstein, and both said they were comfortable with the bids they had submitted.

"I'm pretty sure they have a pitcher they like, and a lot of people in the industry respect this pitcher and like this pitcher," said Minaya. "I congratulate the Red Sox."

Asked if he would have bid more than $50 million, had he known that's what it would take, Minaya said, "I'll keep that to myself. Am I surprised? No. You put a number down if you think the number feels good to you. You have so many unknowns.

"Am I comfortable with the number we put down, yes. The bottom line for us is that was the number that was better for us."

The Yankees are back to the drawing board as well. They need another starter and appear to be competitive on most of the top free agent starters, including Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, and Gil Meche.

"Whether it's free agency or the posting system, you just don't know what somebody else is willing to do," said Cashman. "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Everybody makes their own individual choices. All I can do is speak for the Yankees. I can't speak for situations of others."

Asked specifically about the Red Sox bid, Cashman said, "I felt I put my best foot forward. That's all I'm saying.

"It's not something for me to react to. I don't. Congratulations, and move on and focus on the available markets to me."

Asked if he thought the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry would be even more intense with a Matsuzaka-Matsui showdown, Cashman said, "It's the greatest rivalry in sports."

And soon it might be the greatest rivalry in Japan.