News came around the other day that Daisuke Matsuzaka had thrown a ball. Normally this wouldn't be noteworthy. You'd just ask by how far it missed the strike zone and move on. But these throws were significant because they were the first Matsuzaka made since undergoing Tommy John surgery last June. The procedure has a recovery time of about a year and a half give or take a few months, so while there is a possibility Matsuzaka could pitch for the Red Sox in 2012, he won't be ready until the end of the season at the earliest.
Hard as it is to believe, it was five seasons ago that Matsuzaka signed a six year deal with the Red Sox following his posting from Seibu Lions of the Japanese league. In other words, if Matsuzaka is unable to pitch for Boston next season, he may will have thrown his final pitch for the Red Sox this past May 16th.
That is, unless the team offers him a contract extension.
I understand that Matsuzaka isn't the most popular player and many fans are counting down the minutes until his contract expires. Even seeing his name listed as that evening's starter is encouragement for some to avoid watching that evening's game in lieu of checking the next morning's papers. His pitching style could fairly be described as I Can't See Because I Put Sporks In My Retinas. Admittedly there are few things in life that drone on more than a Matsuzaka start, what with the seemingly interminable full and three ball counts. They come in bunches like John Boehner's orange face paint or Wilford Brimley's nose hair. Yes, his pitch counts shoot up at a ridiculous rate, and he walks too many people and, sometimes you just want to scream at the TV, "Throw a damn strike already!, and... wait, where was I going with this?
Oh, yeah. The idea of extending that contract may seem like crazy talk, but as difficult as it can be to take in a Matsusaka start, it's important to separate the aesthetically displeasing nature of his starts from the production. As a famous GM once said in a book he wrote about himself according to a guy who never read it, we're not selling jeans here. The way it's done doesn't matter. What matters is that it gets done. As much as we might not want to believe it, he's not actually a bad player.
If you accept the idea that Matsuzaka was injured this past season, and it would be hard to argue that he wasn't what with the whole Tommy John surgery thing, then the pertinent part of his career becomes his first four seasons with Boston. Surprisingly enough looking at the stats for those four seasons isn't nearly as painful an exercise as you might expect. Despite his reputation for not going deep into games, from 2007 through 2010 he averaged six innings a start (OK, fine 5.97) while compiling an ERA ten percent above league average. That isn't worth $21 million a year - his current salary including a pro-rated portion of the posting fee -- but it is worth something. Fan Graphs says Shaun Marcum's 2011 season, in which he compiled an ERA+ of 110 in 200.2 innings of work, was worth $12.1 million.
Because of the timing of his surgery, Matsuzaka's free agency will come at an uncertain time for him. He'll have recovered from surgery, but he won't have had an opportunity to prove it a success on the mound. He could try to find a two or even three year deal, but even if he did locate one, the money won't be anywhere near what he wants. To get the deal he wants (and his agent wants him to have) he'll need to showcase himself. He could do that with another team, but considering his particular situation (language barrier, assimilation) he may feel more comfortable staying in Boston.
Also his agent is Scott Boras, the same agent who steered Adrian Beltre to Boston on a one year deal. Beltre and Matsuzaka are much different players, but their situations are comparable in a few ways. Both players want, or in Beltre's case wanted, long term contracts. Both were or will be free agents at age 31 coming off injury-plagued seasons. Both want to rebuild their value in order to sign likely their final big contract. The fact that the Red Sox are perennial winners on a big stage doesn't hurt either. Like Beltre's one year deal, a one year contract extension for Matsuzaka with the Red Sox would give him that stage and allow him to re-enter the market a year later after rebuilding his value.
There is some risk for the team in making such a deal because of the uncertainty surrounding Matsuzaka's injury and recovery. However that risk could force Matsuzaka to sign for a much smaller figure than he ordinarily would.
Such a deal could work out very well for the Red Sox for a number of reasons. First, the team will likely need one more starter for the 2013 season. Considering the Red Sox recent forays into free agency, ask yourself how comfortable you are with dropping between $50 and $100 million on another long term deal for a free agent starter. The Red Sox already have Josh Becket, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester under contract for 2013 at $50.33 million.
In fact, they already have over $106 million committed to eight guys in 2013. With so many holes left to fill and not so much money to do it with, the organization may not want to commit to another long term deal. What's more, although there is talent in the pipeline, the minor league system won't offer any answers. Anthony Ranaudo might be ready by sometime in 2013, but given his play this past season that isn't anything to bank on. Top draft pick Matt Barnes won't likely be in Boston before 2014, and any player they draft next season isn't going to be able to step in and throw 200 innings regardless of how major league ready they are.
Finally, recall the Red Sox organization has spent over $100 million in total on Daisuke Matsuzaka. By 2013 they'll have invested six years in him as well. The Red Sox will have an opening in the rotation and Matsuzaka will want to show off his health and ability for a contender. The two sides know each other. A one year deal in the neighborhood of $5 million sounds about right. At that price even if Matsuzaka doesn't reach an above average level and/or doesn't pitch a full season the team could still get their money's worth. But, if he stays healthy and posts even slightly above average numbers, the deal could end up as a steal for both player and team.