At one point the 2011 free agent pitching class looked like one of the strongest ones in recent history. As recently as January 2009 the class included Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Josh Beckett, Zack Greinke, and Brandon Webb. In the middle of that month, though, Greinke signed an extension that would keep him with the Royals through 2012. Then Webb suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out for almost all of 2009. In December the Blue Jays traded Halladay to the Phillies, who signed him to a three-year, $60 million extension. That leaves just Lee and Beckett as the elite options, but if Buster Olney’s sources are accurate then Lee might find himself the lone pitching prize of the free agent class.
Reports indicate that Beckett has a four-year offer on the table from the Red Sox and that there “is optimism a deal will be completed in the next week or two.” On the open market Beckett would likely command a contract similar to the five-year, $82.5 million deals both A.J. Burnett and John Lackey signed during the past two off-seasons. Apparently the Red Sox don’t want to offer five years due to concerns with Beckett’s shoulder, and Beckett, understandably, doesn’t want to sign a contract that penalizes him for getting hurt (like Lackey’s contract). Olney speculates that the deal could be worth $65 to $70 million, but because a $65 million deal would pay out the same average annual value as Lackey’s deal I would guess $70 million is more realistic.
During his four years with Boston Beckett has established himself as an elite starter in baseball’s toughest division. He got off to a rough start in 2006, a transition year of sorts, as he saw his home run rate spike and his strikeout rate dip. That led to a 5.01 ERA to go with a 5.12 FIP and plenty of criticism from the Boston media. While Beckett served up homers to the hated Yankees, the player they traded, Hanley Ramirez, was busy winning the NL Rookie of the Year award. Just one year later the critics would eat their words, as Beckett stopped walking so many hitters, raised his strikeout rate back to career norms, cut his home run rate in half, and placed second in the Cy Young voting. Oh, and he allowed four runs over 30 playoff innings en route to a World Series Championship.
Beckett disappointed a bit in 2008, but he still pitched well. His ground ball rate dropped while his home run rate increased, likely because his HR/FB went from 8 percent in 2007 back to his career average, around 10.5 percent, in 2008. He also saw a bit higher BABIP that season. Injuries were something of a problem for him that year. He opened the season on the DL with lower back spasms and then went on the DL again in August with elbow neuritis. He ended the season battling an oblique strain, which apparently affected his playoff performance. A far cry from his masterful 2007 run, Beckett allowed 14 runs in 14.1 innings during the 2008 playoffs.
In 2009 Beckett’s ERA came down a bit, but his FIP jumped from 3.24 to 3.63. His home run rate crept up again, though his 12.8 percent HR/FB ratio probably had a bit to do with that — his xFIP was 3.35. Of a bit further concern was his walk rate, which jumped up to 2.33 after two straight years residing below 1.80. He did avoid injury for most of the year, though, making 32 starts and not missing time until the last few days when he suffered upper back spasms. His playoff run comprised just one start, a 6.2-inning, four run performance that put the Sox in an 0-2 hole. Through it all, though, Beckett has maintained his 94 mph fastball, despite the Red Sox concerns with his shoulder.
Beckett’s right shoulder hasn’t been a problem in nearly a decade. In 2000 a doctor told him that labrum surgery was inevitable, but Dr. James Andrews opined that the surgery could be avoided. He instead rested and rehabbed, and hasn’t had an incident since. An MRI in 2007 confirmed an optimistic outlook, though the Red Sox still appear leery of signing Beckett through his age-35 season. As they see it, apparently, paying him a higher salary for four years makes more sense than signing him to the same deal Burnett and Lackey received.
In keeping up with the AL East arms race, the Red Sox would do well to retain Beckett. He’s pitched admirably atop the rotation for the past three years. His blister problems are behind him, and he’s stayed healthy for most of his Red Sox tenure. He could probably get that five-year deal on the open market this off-season, but he could do worse than four years and $70 million with a perpetual contender.
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