Josh Beckett Extension No Longer a Slam Dunk

Josh Beckett Extension No Longer a Slam Dunk To pay or not to pay?

That is the question Theo Epstein must answer regarding Josh Beckett.

The 29-year-old right-hander is in the walk year of his contract. He is due $12 million in 2010 and then becomes a free agent after the season.

If this were the winter of 2007, re-signing Beckett would be a no-brainer. He won 20 games that season and looked like the second coming of Bob Gibson in the playoffs, going 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 30 innings, while leading the Red Sox to their second World Series title in four years. Beckett was king of the hill in the Show — literally and figuratively.

All that changed March 8, 2008. Beckett was scheduled to start against the Florida Marlins in a spring training game at the City of Palms Park in Ft. Myers. Then, he hurt his back on a warm-up pitch. He left the game before facing a batter, missed Opening Day in Japan and didn’t make his first start until April 6. He lost to the Blue Jays, and never got into a groove that season, finishing 12-10 with a 4.03 ERA.

When Beckett posted a 7.22 ERA this past April, doubt crept back into the picture. “What’s wrong with Beckett?” went from being an unspoken thought to a say-it-ain’t-so whisper to a profanity-laced debate. Beckett talked everyone away from the ledge by going 7-1 over the next two months and making the All-Star team.

But a shaky second half stirred up those bad memories again. Beckett gave up 12 home runs in his last four August starts and looked baffled at times. Though he righted the ship in September, Beckett’s loss to the Angels in the division series left everyone on edge a little bit.

Now a Beckett extension requires some thought and analysis.

Which Beckett will show up in 2010?

Will he stay healthy?

Can he stop serving up gopher balls like ice cream cones at Baskin Robbins?

Beckett turns 30 in May. He is human. He bleeds. He’s not invincible.

Clay Buchholz’s name gets thrown around in trade rumors more than any Red Sox pitcher’s. But would the team ever consider trading Beckett? If contract negotiations are going nowhere — if they’re so far apart on numbers and years — is it inconceivable to think the Red Sox might throw a line in the trade waters to see who bites?

The John Lackey move gives the Red Sox flexibility. Giving the bulldog five years and $82.5 million gives Beckett a starting point for contract talks. His three-year, $30 million deal that expired in 2009 might have been the best bargain in baseball.

This time around, Beckett is going to want to get paid like a true No. 1, and he’s probably going to want to make as much as Lackey. The two have almost identical career numbers. Beckett is 103-68 with 3.79 ERA in nine seasons. Lackey is 102-71 with a 3.81 ERA in eight.

The Red Sox are going to have to open their checkbook to keep Beckett — and keep him happy — but the team might wait to see if he pitches like a No. 1 next season before making an offer he can’t refuse.

Nobody wants to see Beckett leave Boston. He’s done great things for the city and the Red Sox. But this is a what-have-you-done-lately world, and Beckett has back-to-back inconsistent seasons on the back of his baseball card.

Extension or no extension? It’s a tough call.

Making business decisions with the heart rarely pay off, so don’t be surprised if the Red Sox play it smart.

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