On Saturday, Gordon Edes broke the news that the Red Sox might not be willing to go to a fifth year for a Josh Beckett contract extension. If we accept this report to be accurate (which is far from a guarantee), some questions arise, especially given the team's willingness to sign an older and somewhat more injury prone John Lackey to a lengthy deal. Why not go to five for Beckett?
The most obvious answer would be that the Sox see something in Josh Beckett's medicals they don't particularly like, similar to how Jason Bay's offer shrank to a two year deal over the summer. But maybe this is something entirely different—perhaps even an attempt to sink negotiations while still appearing to have made an effort.
Early in the offseason, we were informed the Red Sox would be experiencing a "bridge year". This was interpreted first as an admission that the Sox would not be contenders this year, and then as a statement of a new approach for a year with relatively little help coming from the minors. Whereas in years past the team could rely on new faces like Pedroia, Ellsbury, and Buchholz to fill holes in the team, this year they were forced to turn to free agency, signing players like Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron, and Marco Scutaro to short-term deals.
The outlier there was John Lackey. Marco Scutaro's two year with options contract was the lengthiest deal of the season other than Lackey's five year commitment. That's a pretty big bump. So what makes Lackey different? My theory is that he's here to replace Josh Beckett.
Baseball-Reference lists Lackey as Beckett's closest analog in the majors, so if you were going to choose a replacement, Lackey fits the bill about as well as anyone else. When it comes to money, Lackey is actually probably slightly cheaper. After all, his deal was being used as a baseline for Beckett, who clearly wants five years.
So why sign Lackey? Why not just re-sign Beckett. He would be a bit younger, and he's proven himself in Boston to some extent. The aim here could be to take advantage of the situation. Consider the Red Sox' payroll this year. At well over $160 million, the Sox are shelling out quite a bit more than they ever have in the past. But it's not at all unlike the team to be willing to take a one year hit to put themselves in the best possible situation to win without fouling up the future. Look at 2007, when the payroll jumped $20 million before settling back down in 2008 and 2009.
The problem is that, generally speaking, top talent is simply not available on one year contracts. Except in a situation like this. If we accept that Beckett and Lackey can act as replacements for one-another, then the Sox are in essence signing one of them to a one year, $18 million deal. That Lackey will likely spend the next four years at $3-4 million less than Beckett would cost is a nice added bonus.
This would put the Lackey contract into lock-step with the rest of the free agent signings by the Sox over the offseason. Short deals to get us past this dry spell from the minors. Cameron will be replaced by Kalish or Reddick, the rotation could welcome in either Bowden, Tazawa, or Kelly depending on how far along they all are. The only one without an obvious replacement is Adrian Beltre, and if Lars were to have a comeback year, Youkilis could still shift over (though I, for one, am opposed to Youk playing anywhere but first). Over the next two years, the payroll would quickly fall back down to normal ranges as it did after 2007 as the new wave of minor leaguers replaces the short-term stopgaps.
One of the biggest concerns I've seen thrown around about not signing Beckett is the idea of seeing him in pinstripes next year. I would say if the Yankees are really looking to sign another ace, they'll get one regardless of Beckett's contract, and quite frankly we should be so lucky that they would sign the more inconsistent Beckett.
I'm far from sure about this. For all we know, the Sox are just angling for an injury clause like they have in Lackey's contract. Maybe they're just doing what they usually do, and driving the hard bargain, with a definite (but reasonable) price point they're willing to pay for Beckett, and not going over. But perhaps they think there are better places to allocate their market-value contracts. The minors, after all, are noticeably well stocked in some areas (starting pitching), and barren in others (third base). While generally a player in the minors is supposed to be considered for value and not what role they could eventually play on the team, being in need of a trade generally doesn't help net equal deals. By signing Beckett, the Sox would be showing their hand somewhat when it comes to starting pitchers. They would simply have no real place for their high-minors starters to advance to for around two years, and thus would be dealing from a position of weakness.
If the Sox did choose to let Beckett walk, it would not be a popular decision. After all, Beckett has a (somewhat undeserved other than 2007) reputation as the team's ace, and one of the top big game pitchers. But when have the Sox been known to kowtow to public opinion since the current front office group took over? Theo has never been about making the fans happy going into April, but going into October. And if in this "bridge year" shelling out $18 million for one year is the price to keep the magic going without committing to spending too much in 2011, so be it. Maybe next year we'll be able to throw out Beckett for thirty starts once again. But maybe we'll be throwing Lackey out there instead, and not be able to tell the difference.