Commentary

Beckett contract might send message

Long-term status of Martinez, Matsuzaka could be affected by deal

Updated: April 6, 2010, 9:38 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- There were messages galore one could read in the Boston Red Sox's coming to terms on a four-year, $68 million extension with pitcher Josh Beckett, which was officially announced Monday.

For Beckett, it was all good. He wanted to stay, the Sox wanted to keep him and if the length of the contract fell short by one year of the five-year deal signed by free agent John Lackey this past winter, a hometown discount was the price of having that peace of mind now.

But Beckett's signing, which had luxury-tax advantages for the Sox because it was officially completed after the start of the season rather than during spring training, also contained a message for catcher Victor Martinez, whose contract, as Beckett's had been, is up at the end of the season. There also might have been an indirect message for Daisuke Matsuzaka, whose name wasn't even mentioned by general manager Theo Epstein when discussing the team's long-term pitching prospects.

[+] EnlargeJosh Beckett
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaKeeping Josh Beckett was a priority for the Red Sox, and the pitcher was happy to make it happen, leaving Boston's top three pitchers locked up through 2014.

The Sox made keeping Beckett a priority, identifying him as an asset they weren't willing to risk losing and would find extremely difficult to replace.

"The way this has evolved for us,'' Epstein said at Monday's news conference announcing Beckett's signing, "it's proven to be important to identify pitching that can succeed in the AL East and make sure we can secure it.

"If you look at free agency in the next couple of years, there's maybe one guy [Cliff Lee]. That depends on how you want to define true top-of-the-rotation starter types, but there's maybe one guy in the next couple of years.''

Martinez, meanwhile, said he has yet to be approached about an extension, which means (a) the Sox aren't as concerned about finding a replacement if Martinez elects to leave as a free agent and (b) the Sox need further proof that Martinez is the long-term answer behind the plate.

As a switch-hitting run producer, Martinez is an unquestioned plus, especially at the position he plays. Defensively, however, the Sox want to know whether he is the mechanic they want servicing what is potentially a Rolls-Royce of rotations. According to one metric, defensive runs saved, Martinez ranked as the worst catcher in the major leagues last season.

DRS measures how many runs a player saved/cost his team compared with the average player at his position. Catchers are evaluated on their ability to handle pitchers (earned runs saved) and prevent stolen bases (stolen-base runs saved). Holding down another team's running game is hardly the sole province of the catcher -- the pitchers bear some responsibility -- but clearly it's the kind of study likely to give the Sox pause.

The quality of free-agent catchers potentially available is no better than that of the starting pitchers, especially with Joe Mauer taken off the market this spring by the Twins, but the Sox have catching in their minor league pipeline that looks projectable -- Luis Exposito, Mark Wagner and Tim Federowicz -- and the dollars spent on Martinez now might be better saved for a potentially bigger bat. Oh, say, Adrian Gonzalez or Prince Fielder, to name two.

"You're placing bets on players,'' said Epstein, who would not comment on negotiations with Martinez. "We believe in Josh. When you look at whether to sign one of your own players long term, you have to look at the alternatives and what's out there, on the trade market, free agency, in your own organization. If there's a surplus of available talent, you might be more cautious in signing your own players. You feel more comfortable waiting until free agency. But if it's a position of scarcity, you might want to act.''

As for Matsuzaka, maybe Epstein neglected to mention him because he didn't fit the context of what the general manager was addressing. Namely, that the Sox now have three pitchers locked up through 2014 -- Beckett, Lackey and Jon Lester (the club holds an option on '14) -- and a fourth, Clay Buchholz, who isn't eligible for free agency until after the '14 season.

Matsuzaka signed a six-year deal before the '07 season that runs out in 2012. Still, you'd think that being around even for the next three years would have warranted a modest shout-out from Epstein. Instead, nothing, which is basically what the Sox have gotten from the Japanese right-hander for the better part of a year.

And there is little evidence that's going to change any time soon. When someone asked manager Terry Francona before Sunday's opener whether Matsuzaka, scheduled to start Saturday in Pawtucket, would need only a couple of more outings before being called up, Francona quickly shot down that notion. "He needs to pitch,'' he said.

The Sox were not happy with what they saw of Matsuzaka's progress this spring. The velocity was missing, the command of his secondary pitches below average. The Sox thought they had a potential ace in the making for the first three months of 2007, when Matsuzaka seemed worthy of the intercontinental hype. He was striking out better than a batter an inning while holding opposition hitters to an OPS of .657.

But that was also Matsuzaka's first experience with a five-day rotation -- Japanese pitchers throw once every six days because there's an automatic day off built into each week -- and whether the physical toll caught up with him remains unanswered.

Matsuzaka went 18-3 in 2008, but he averaged five walks per nine innings and his innings and strikeouts were down. Then came last season's disaster, one in which Matsuzaka said he hid a groin injury from the club, then was shut down because of what was described as a shoulder strain. He offered some hope when he came back and pitched well in September, but now the familiar questions have returned.

Languishing in Florida, as he did last summer, or pitching in Pawtucket is hardly the way for Matsuzaka to save face in his native Japan, where he remains a national icon. His frustration spilled over last year when he complained of the Red Sox's training methods, and although all parties have maintained that communication is better this spring, one wonders whether more friction looms on the horizon, especially if Matsuzaka senses the Sox are keeping him down longer than is necessary.

There is a no-trade clause in Matsuzaka's contract, but it's not impossible to imagine a scenario in which both parties seek an out. It's abundantly clear which pitchers are part of the long-term blueprint, and just as obvious who isn't.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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