It's still February. The Boston Red Sox haven't even faced Boston College. Yet somehow, now is the time to start talking about impending free agents and next offseason.
Since general manager Theo Epstein took over before the 2003 season, the Red Sox have inked only five in-season contract extensions. Three of those were announced in early April after having been negotiated in March. Just how rare is it? Consider that the last in-season extension was nearly four years ago and went to one of the players being discussed right now.
On July 19, 2006, Beckett tossed eight shutout innings against the Royals, as the Red Sox won back-to-back 1-0 games at Fenway Park for the first time since 1916. After the game, the team announced a three-year extension with an option for 2010. Since then, in-season negotiations have taken place with other players (notably with Jason Bay), but no extensions handed out.
So will the Red Sox lock up either of these cornerstones before Opening Day? Both are elite players and have expressed a fondness for Boston. But given their expected cost and advancing age, questions surround both players.
We look at both situations:
The Red Sox essentially signed Beckett in December. Only his name was John Lackey.
The two have more in common than just height and Texas. From a statistical standpoint, they are incredibly similar pitchers. Lackey has a 102-71 career record with a 3.81 ERA while Beckett stands at 106-68 with a 3.79 ERA.
Indeed, according to the similarity scores devised by Red Sox adviser Bill James, Lackey is the most similar pitcher to Beckett in baseball history (as Beckett is to Lackey, as well).
That's why, 19 months younger and with immense postseason success, Beckett will likely use Lackey's $82.5 million deal as a starting point. Should Boston commit long-term to a pair of starters over 30 years old?
While not always dominant, Beckett has proved extremely reliable for Boston. With 12-plus wins and 170-plus innings in five straight seasons, a group that includes only Beckett, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Derek Lowe and Dan Haren. Since 2006, Beckett ranks third in the American League in strikeouts and is tied for second in wins.
He arrived in Boston with concerns about his durability, but only four pitchers have logged more innings in the AL since he arrived. Three of those four (Roy Halladay, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez) cashed in big this offseason.
Ironically, while his durability is no longer a concern, his high innings total raises a red flag. Beckett turns 30 on May 15 and has already logged 1,401 career innings.
There are 20 active pitchers who had more innings before their age-30 season. Of the 10 who are now at least 33, six missed at least half of a season because of injury before turning 34. That doesn't even include Ben Sheets, now 31, who missed all of last season.
That's an alarming trend for the Red Sox, given that they just committed to five years of Lackey, another workhorse during his youth. However, both pitchers have large frames -- Beckett is 6-foot-5; Lackey is 6-6 -- that bode well for durability. Of the six aforementioned players who missed substantial time, four are 6-1 or under.
From an organizational standpoint, the Red Sox already have five starters locked up for 2011, though that includes Tim Wakefield, who would be 44. Then there are prospects Casey Kelly, Junichi Tazawa and Michael Bowden, all of whom could be ready for the big leagues by then. In other words, thanks largely to the Lackey signing, insurance for losing Beckett is already in place.
Might the Red Sox opt to wait Beckett's contract out? He could have another season of health, with the added incentive of performing for a contract. Consider 2006, when Beckett (though still a full year from free agency) was 11-5 before signing his extension and just 5-6 after the ink dried.
Victor Martinez's future value to the Red Sox comes down to one word: position.
How does one evaluate a player whose position will almost assuredly change in the middle of his next contract?
Going into 2010, Martinez is slated to be the team's primary catcher, but his position going forward is less clear. The concerns are twofold, but related: defense and age.
Catcher's ERA is a deeply flawed statistic, hugely dependent on the quality of team's pitching staff and specific battery pairings. That caveat aside, consider this: Red Sox pitchers had a 5.22 ERA in the relatively small sample size throwing to Martinez, compared to 3.87 with Jason Varitek behind the plate. Including his time in Cleveland, Martinez finished with a 5.55 CERA last season, easily the worst among regular catchers. (It's worth pointing out that Kelly Shoppach was Cliff Lee's personal catcher in Cleveland, while Martinez was saddled with Fausto Carmona.)
So while the numbers may be flawed, they support the belief that Martinez comes up short in the great intangible upon which Varitek has built his reputation: calling a good game.
Much of the concern over Martinez's defense is reputation-based. However, that's not the case for his ability to throw out baserunners. Martinez caught only 12.5 percent of base stealers last season, including just two of 19 with the Red Sox. Only Varitek had a lower percentage among regular catchers last season.
As a team, the Red Sox allowed 90.4 percent of baserunners to steal successfully. That's the third-highest rate in the majors over the last 20 years.
The Red Sox appear to believe that Martinez's defensive flaws are overstated and that he will benefit from work with catching guru Gary Tuck this spring. But even if his defense is better than advertised, that won't mitigate the concerns of his advancing age. Martinez will turn 32 next offseason.
Having endured multiple Varitek contract negotiations over the last seven years, Red Sox fans have heard the data on aging catchers. The bottom line is a steep decline in production in the mid-30s. Martinez had his second-best offensive season in 2009 with a .861 OPS. Only eight catchers 33 or older have had a higher OPS season.
Despite all the talk of defense, the fact remains that Martinez is in Boston for his offense. But just how valuable would he be if he isn't catching?
Only Joe Mauer was a more productive offensive catcher than Martinez last year. But if Martinez had put up the same numbers at first base, he would have ranked 14th among first basemen in OPS and tied for 15th in home runs. Essentially, Martinez would go from an elite offensive catcher to an above-average first baseman.
Given the likely position change, the Red Sox could decide to make any extension front-loaded and have his pay effectively represent his positional value. This would follow in the path of the John Lackey deal, which makes him baseball's third-highest-paid player in 2010 when his bonus is factored in.
Ultimately, the Red Sox may just opt to play the season out with their ace and backstop unsigned for the future. After all, they applied that strategy in 2004 with Varitek and Pedro Martinez -- and it worked out pretty well in the end.
Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.