Josh Beckett, Not Mariners’ Felix Hernandez, the Key to Boston’s Pitching Future

Josh Beckett, Not Mariners' Felix Hernandez, the Key to Boston's Pitching Future Tuesday was a dark day for Red Sox fans. Twenty-three-year-old fireballer Felix Hernandez reportedly agreed to a five-year deal to stay with the Mariners.

Now who will hopeful Hub fans lust after? Hmmm, how about Josh Beckett?

The Red Sox made a serious attempt to land King Felix at the trade deadline and were reportedly trying to lure him away from the Mariners this offseason. But the Seattle brass stood pat during the season, then — fresh off getting Cliff Lee from Philadelphia, signing free agent Chone Figgins and trading for Milton Bradley – opened up their wallets for their ace to the tune of about $80 million, according to ESPN's Buster Olney.

But as the supremely wise Celine Dion once sang, the Red Sox' hearts will go on. With the signing this offseason of righty workhorse John Lackey, the Boston rotation appears to be in fine shape for 2010. Adding the former Angel to the pre-existing two-headed ace-monster of Beckett and Jon Lester should — at the very least — give the team a better-than-average shot at winning 60 percent of its games.

Combine them with a seemingly healthy Tim Wakefield coming off arguably his finest half-season ever as a starter, an exceptionally promising youngster in Clay Buchholz and a presumably rehabbed Daisuke Matsuzaka just one season removed from an 18-3 record, and you have an embarrassment of riches that even the most optimistic of Red Sox fans wouldn't have dreamed of.

But those pitching riches could be seriously compromised if general manager Theo Epstein isn't able to ink Beckett — whose current contract with Boston is up after 2010 — to an extension. Soon.

MLB.com's Ian Browne wrote last week that spring training could be a crucial time for re-signing the 29-year-old Texas native.

"Spring training is a time in which [Epstein] has often talked with the agents for players entering the final year of a contract," he suggested. "I see no reason why that wouldn't be the case this time around."

Especially after taking a relative hometown discount back in August of 2006, now's the time for Beckett to capitalize monetarily on his 65-34 mark in his four years with the Red Sox. And though Epstein has historically been reluctant to shell out long-term, big-money deals to pitchers, the Lackey signing set a precedent that Epstein will no doubt be pressured to follow. Furthermore, the franchise has a great relationship with Beckett.

Still, there are no guarantees. Many expected Jason Bay to return to Boston this offseason, and we all know how that turned out.

So what happens if the Red Sox don't bring back Beckett in 2011?

Well, Lackey is signed through the 2014 campaign, Lester has a deal that goes through 2013 with a team option for 2014 and Matsuzaka likely won't be leaving until his $52 million deal is up after the 2012 season. Buchholz isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2013 season. And even though Wakefield has been beset by injuries, he'll be with the Red Sox through at least 2011.

Is that enough to stay in the title hunt for the next few seasons? Perhaps.

But given the perpetual need to keep up with the proverbial Joneses (read: the Yankees) — who you know will be all over Beckett if there's so much as a hint of unhappiness expressed in his contract dealings with the Red Sox — is it enough to stay afloat in the ongoing arms race with the Bronx Bombers? Perhaps not.

It seems only logical that the Red Sox could go after other young, big-name hurlers. How exciting would it be to see Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke or Justin Verlander signed to a long-term deal and taking to the Fenway mound in the Red Sox' home whites? About as exciting as it would have been to hear Felix Hernandez's name announced as Boston's starter on Opening Day 2011.

With a solid offense and a vastly improved defense, bringing in another top-line starter would be the icing on the cake. But Hernandez appears to be staying in Seattle. And those other options remain serious long shots — exciting but unlikely long shots.

And Epstein and the rest of the Red Sox management are fine with them staying that way. As long as Josh Beckett remains in Boston, we should be set for a while longer.

Yardbarker

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