Becketts’ New Deal? Count Me as a “Maybe”

Back in October, I mused that Josh Beckett’s run in Boston was probably drawing to a close. Yes, the Sox would pick up his 2010 option, but all bets were off when it came to an extension. This premise was built on a couple of factors. First, Beckett limped across the finish line in 2009 after a blistering May-July. Second, nagging injuries chilled Beckett’s 2008 season and crushed the Sox in the ALCS. And third, Beckett was going to be an awfully big ticket that would be hard to squeeze into a $140M budget.

Well, point three basically became moot this winter when the Sox signed John Lackey to an $82M deal and blew through what I thought was their payroll ceiling. Budget restraints be damned. Meanwhile, any concern the Sox had with Beckett’s durability and recent performance were put to bed yesterday as they finalized a four-year extension with Beckett that will keep the Texan in Boston through the 2014 season.  

Count me in the camp that is lukewarm on this deal.

Rather than dwell on the negatives, I will start with the positives. First, the Sox avoided giving Beckett that fifth year, which would have come in his “year 35” season. For a power pitcher like Beckett, 35 is not a good luck number. By limiting their exposure to Beckett’s “year 34” season, the Sox probably have a decent shot at seeing this contract cross the finish line in one piece.

Two, the deal certainly looks fair given the recent market. For comparison sake, let’s take a look at the deals that John Lackey and AJ Burnett signed. Lackey’s deal, 5yr/82.5M, will cover his 31-35 seasons. And the foundation of that deal were two seasons where Lackey missed starts and sports ERA+’s of 119 and 118.

Meanwhile, AJ Burnett signed a five-year deal before the 2009 season that will pay him the same 82.5M that Lackey got. Said contract covers AJ’s 32-36 seasons and the foundation of this deal is two years where AJ’s ERA+ was 104 and 106. In fact, up until August of 2008, AJ was sporting an ERA close to five and a late surge surely played a big role in boosting the size of his deal.

That leaves Beckett and over the next five years, the Sox will be cutting him checks that amount to $80M. And what were Beckett’s ERA+ numbers over the past two seasons? 115 and 122. So in-line with Lackey and better than AJ for a bigger slice of Beckett’s prime.  

From that standpoint, the Sox got a fair deal. But is Beckett, and for that matter Lackey, worth all that loot? The numbers say “yes,” but to judge that, you also have to weigh the impact that these deals will have on future rosters and future payrolls.

As it stands right now, the Sox will be spending about $52M on the following six pitchers in 2011: Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Dice, Wakefield and Buchholz. 52 is certainly manageable if the Sox are now resigned to a payroll in the 150s. But if they have a lower figure in mind, there could be a squeeze. Why so? Well, I see the Sox payroll next season at about 120M before they address DH, 3B and Catcher. So if they want to go big at one (or two) of these spots, they will probably need to go cheap or internal on the balance to keep the payroll below 150M. And in 2012?

 Well, they should be alright. Papelbon should be off the books by then and it’s possible that a Josh Reddick or Ryan Kalish may be replacing JD Drew’s $14M. Also, Casey Kelly should be ready by then, freeing the Sox up to move Dice and save that $10M. The moral to the story is the Sox should be able to accommodate this deal without it imposing too much pressure on the roster going forward.

So the remaining question is ….will Josh Beckett hold up for five more years? I am not a solid “yes” on that question and that has nothing to do with Sunday night. Sorry, but last August scarred me. I can forgive 2008 as an outlier. But last season, Beckett really wore down in August and in October, the Angels pierced his magical post-season veil. If that happened at 29, what is August of 2013 going to look like?

My final concern is Josh Beckett has probably peaked. At 30, it is unlikely there is much upside left in that arm and therefore, the success of this contract depends on Beckett maintaining the status quo. If he can do it, this deal is a win. But the downside here is the Sox have a ton of money committed to Beckett and Lester and Lackey through 2014. While I hope that each holds up, the laws of pitching suggest that this will not be the case.  

For better or worse, the Sox now have their staff largely carved in stone for the next five seasons.

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