Less than 24 hours after the season opener at Fenway Park, it was time for the Red Sox to plan for next year ... and the year after that ... and the year after that ... and the year after that.

With this town, and this team, there's no such thing as "too early" to think about gaining an edge on the archrival Yankees. And if you believe there's any other motivation behind Josh Beckett's new contract - four years, $68 million - then you haven't been paying attention.

Don't worry about the big sticker price. Unless your name is John Henry, you aren't paying it, anyway.

Look, instead, at the major league starting pitchers now controlled by the Red Sox and Yankees through 2013.

Boston -- Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz

New York -- CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes

There's no need to ask which group is better. The answer's obvious, even if Beckett looked flat in his start against the Bombers on Sunday night.

Could things change between now and 2013? Sure. Could the Yankees buy the Pirates' starting rotation in its entirety? Hey, under a new basic agreement, one never knows.

But at this moment, the Red Sox have reason to feel more comfortable than the Yankees about the future of their starting staff.

Even if you think Hughes has the chance to be as good as Lackey -- a reasonable assertion -- having a fourth pitcher in hand gives Boston the advantage.

What's more, the Boston quartet is under contract through '14; Burnett and Hughes are on track to become free agents after the '13 season. Sabathia also has the right to opt out after next year.

And the Red Sox have star pitching prospect Casey Kelly too. He's not far away.

"It's hard to have an elite organization without excellent starting pitching," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. "I think we have an even higher standard here. We need starting pitching that can succeed in the American League East, against these tough lineups that we face.

"When you have that pitching, you don't want to let it get away."

After pointing out that Beckett, Lester, Lackey and Buchholz are set to be with the club for this season and four after that, the GM added, "There are no guarantees in baseball, but it should mean that we have outstanding starting pitching for that period. That's the building block on which we can go about finishing off the rest of the club. Knowing that we have that in place, we can focus on other areas."

Monday's announcement recognized the scarcity of high-end pitching in today's game. In the weeks leading up to Opening Day, big-dollar extensions for young starters were all the rage. With each announcement -- Josh Johnson, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Matt Cain -- Beckett's value increased.

Beckett's a bona fide top-of-the-rotation workhorse. He's made two All-Star teams, thrown 200 or more innings three times and has the stuff and moxie to thrive in the rugged American League East.

Most importantly, he's been the backbone of two World Series-winning staffs.

The Red Sox couldn't afford to let him go -- certainly not with the Yankees shopping for a pitcher of his ilk in the not-too-distant future.

Two of New York's top four starters -- Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez -- will be free agents at the close of this season. Knowing the Yankees, they'll want two established pitchers to fill those spots.

The Yankee farm system isn't exactly teeming with 200-inning starters who are close to the majors. So, unless both Pettitte and Vazquez return, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman will be shopping in an offseason market that might be of dubious quality.

A few months ago, there was plenty of talk about 2009 postseason stalwart Cliff Lee and the riches he'll find next winter, but now he's on the disabled list with an abdominal strain. The missed time could cost him millions if he's ineffective upon his return.

Brandon Webb? Same story, only it's a sore shoulder that ails him. He, too, is on the DL at the start of the season.

If the Red Sox had entertained the idea of pursuing Lee or Webb, the recent travails of each pitcher made a deal with Beckett seem even more appealing.

And the going rate for top pitching suggests the Red Sox aren't overpaying their ace.

Lackey, currently slotted as the No. 3 starter, signed a five-year contract that pays an average of $16.5 million per annum.

Beckett's new deal is worth $17 million per year, and he earned it with four years of service to the franchise. Lackey, by contrast, had been an employee of the Angels for his entire career, and the two have very comparable lifetime numbers.

So, the company guy gets an extra $500,000 per year. Seems fair.

The Beckett-Lackey comparisons were inevitable from the moment the former Angel agreed to his contract in December. To Epstein's credit, he recognized the potential awkwardness and called Beckett to reaffirm the organization's interest in keeping him for the long term.

"It meant a lot," Beckett said.

There's risk in this deal, as is the case with any long-term contract. Beckett's had DL stints because of shoulder and elbow woes; one source said there's no clause in the deal that would permit the team to void the contract because of recurrences.

But Epstein said physical examinations concluded that Beckett is "insurable," indicating that his arm is structurally sound enough for a policy to be placed on it. "Actually, (his health) can be seen as better now than it's ever been," Epstein said. "A sign of that is that (he's) insurable. Not all pitchers are."

The Red Sox and Yankees will play again on Tuesday night, but their rivalry's so grand that the future's a genuine frontier. With Beckett on Monday, Boston scored a victory on the faraway scoreboard without a pitch being thrown.