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Red Sox must make longterm call on Beckett

A rival general manager recently expressed doubt that the Red Sox would sign right-hander Josh Beckett to a contract extension, saying, "I can't see the Red Sox paying two starting pitchers $80 million."

I couldn't see it either, but then I noticed that the upcoming free-agent classes were practically devoid of elite starting pitching.

Now I get it.

I'm not convinced the Sox will give Beckett the same deal they awarded right-hander John Lackey in free agency -- five years, $82.5 million. But I can see the logic of them signing Beckett long-term, risky as the move might be.

Other than Beckett, Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee is the only top starting pitcher eligible for free agency next winter -- unless you count Yankees right-hander Javier Vazquez, who is very good, but not a Beckett or Lee.

The following winter, the biggest prize likely would be White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle, who would be entering his age-33 season. The winter after that - we're talking 2012-13 -- Royals right-hander Zack Greinke would be the top name at age 29.

Remember when the Yankees declined to trade for left-hander Johan Santana after the 2007 season knowing that they could grab left-hander CC Sabathia and righty A.J. Burnett the following year in free agency?

The Red Sox, looking long-term, face the opposite situation.

Their options are shrinking.

The future free-agent possibilities thinned considerably this past offseason, when Marlins right-hander Josh Johnson agreed to an extension through 2013 and Tigers righty Justin Verlander and Mariners righty Felix Hernandez signed through '14.

The impact on the Red Sox is obvious: If they do not keep Beckett, they will find it almost impossible to replace him with a comparable pitcher in free agency - or, for that matter, in a trade.

That does not mean the Sox should cave to Beckett, who likely wants Lackey's contract or better, considering that their career statistics are nearly identical.

Still, Beckett settled for security in his last deal, which will turn out to be four years, $42 million. If he is willing to make the same tradeoff again, the Sox should jump.

High-revenue teams, in particular, need to stay open-minded.

While Sox general manager Theo Epstein, like most of his colleagues, is more comfortable going long-term with position players than pitchers, he showed flexibility last winter when he shifted to a

pitching-defense emphasis and went five years on Lackey.

The signing of Beckett would represent a different type of adjustment, a reaction to the shifting dynamics of the market.

Lee, most baseball people agree, will go to the highest bidder, seeking at least $100 million. The Yankees likely will be front and center in those sweepstakes, viewing Lee as a long-term replacement for Vazquez. If the Red Sox did not sign Beckett, the rotation advantage would swing significantly in the Yankees' favor.

If I were Epstein, I still might wait, just to make sure Beckett remains healthy all season. The danger of waiting, though, is that Beckett's price as a free agent might far exceed the Sox's comfort level, ending any possibility of re-signing him.

At that point, the Sox would be left to sift through Vazquez, Ted Lilly and other free agents - many of whom are injury risks themselves.

Beckett, who turns 30 on May 15, is 18 1/2 months younger than Lackey. The Sox secured a measure of injury protection in Lackey's contract - the team can pick up a sixth-year option at the minimum salary if Lackey misses significant time with surgery for a pre-existing elbow condition. They could ask for similar language to cover Beckett's shoulder - which, truth be told, hasn't been an issue for him since he joined the team in 2006.

Beckett is one of the game's hardest workers, an example to the team's younger pitchers. The Sox take justifiable pride in keeping their pitchers healthy. And while any long-term deal for a starting pitcher is a gamble, the potential upside for the Sox if they sign Beckett is as significant as the potential downside of his departure.

A deal of at least four years for Beckett would give the Sox control of five premier talents - Lackey, Beckett, left-hander Jon Lester and right-handers Clay Buchholz and Casey Kelly - through 2014. Righty Tim Wakefield is under contract through 2011, righty Daisuke Matsuzaka through '12.

The depth of such a group would be stunning.

A team with lower revenues never could afford to sign Beckett on top of Lackey - the risk of securing even one such pitcher long-term would be too great.

The Sox, though, almost could use one as insurance for the other. If both pitchers stayed healthy, great -- the team likely would remain perennial World Series contenders.

Those future free-agent lists provide all the motivation the Red Sox need to keep Beckett.

Keeping him actually might be less of a risk than losing him. Rarely does a long-term deal for a starting pitcher make such sense.