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Beckett, the Sox and simple math

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 11, 2010 11:05 AM

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Josh Beckett has made it quite clear that he will not negotiate with the Red Sox beyond Opening Day, which might have been considered a threat once, at a different time and under different circumstances. In this case, that is far more time than the Red Sox and Beckett should need to finalize one of the easiest contracts in history.

The Red Sox open the season against the New York Yankees on Easter Sunday, which currently stands as a fitting deadline for the Red Sox and their 29-year-old right-hander. After all, this one really should be a bunny. In the last 15 months, four comparable right-handers all have signed contracts that could serve as some standard for the Beckett talks, and the deals cluster together as if magnetized.

A.J. Burnett: five years, $82.5 million. John Lackey: five years, $82.5 million. Justin Verlander: five years, $80 million. Felix Hernandez: five years, $78 million.

Hmmm.

Tough one there.

Five years and $80 million(ish)?

For obvious reasons, the Lackey contract carries more weight than the others for the simple fact that he signed with the Red Sox. To this point in their careers, Beckett and Lackey have virtually identical numbers. Paying Beckett even a penny less than the $82.5 million Lackey received sends a bad message to the existing players in the Boston clubhouse, and the Sox are not likely to quibble (if they are smart – and they are) over a sum as paltry as $500,000 a year with a man who almost single-handedly delivered them the 2007 World Series championship.

Lackey made some concessions in that deal, most notably in the form of a club option for a sixth season (at a $400,000 salary) if the pitcher suffers an elbow injury during the first five years of the contract. Fine. The Red Sox are likely to request a similar concession from Beckett regarding a right shoulder that prompted concern from them when Beckett came here via trade following the 2005 season, regardless of whether Theo Epstein was the one who pulled the trigger on that deal.

As we all know, Epstein did not make the trade for Beckett and Mike Lowell because he and club president Larry Lucchino were in the midst of a separation at the time. But if Epstein can close this deal, he will have since signed Beckett to two contract extensions totaling nine years and, presumably, something in the neighborhood of $125 million.

For the Red Sox, securing Beckett to a long-term deal now would be a significant gain, for a number of reasons. During the tenure of owner John Henry, the Sox generally have refrained from re-signing their own notable free agents-to-be before those players have filed for free agency. In 2004, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, and Nomar Garciaparra all remained unsigned entering the final years of their contracts. The same was true of Johnny Damon in 2005. Mike Lowell and Curt Schilling played 2007 in the final years of their deals. Manny Ramirez went into 2008 unsigned and Jason Bay did not have a contract by Opening Day 2009.

In the large majority of those cases, the player ended up somewhere else. Varitek and Lowell are the significant exceptions, the former all but ruling out other teams because of his desire to remain in Boston, the latter ultimately taking less from the Sox, who have since spent a significant amount of time trying to trade him. All of this makes Beckett a rather considerable exception, a matter that is certainly worth investigating further.

For starters, Beckett is generally younger than the majority of those players when they were preparing to hit the market. Additionally, the Sox gave up Hanley Ramirez for him. Assuming any deal with Beckett includes some protection for the Sox – a la the Lackey and J.D. Drew deals, as well as those pursued in the Bay talks – the Sox clearly seem willing to do with Beckett what they have refrained from doing with many others, especially at a time when players costs are relatively low.

As for the Sox’ relative shortage of prospects at the higher minor-league levels, the Lackey signing guarded the Sox against that months ago, at least with regard to the pitching staff. If and when Beckett is signed, the Sox would have Lackey, Jon Lester, Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz, and Casey Kelly (among others) all under team control through at least 2012. Take away Matsuzaka, and the Boston rotation essentially would be locked up through 2014, giving the Red Sox an array of roster options – trades, signings, etc. – between now and then.

Then, they could more easily trade Buchholz for someone like Adrian Gonzalez, or focus their efforts on finding and developing hitters. Or both.

Assuming Beckett is not asking for something ridiculous – and the clearly established market of the last 15 months seems to preclude that – there is only one other thing that seemingly could prevent this deal from getting done: the Red Sox’ unwillingness to do so for either a concern over Beckett’s health or a reluctance to invest too much long-term money in their pitching staff. (Is that even possible?) At the moment, all things considered, there is simply no reason for anyone to balk at this deal because it makes way too much sense for everyone.

Which is why, if it doesn’t happen, we should all wonder why?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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