With Theo Epstein off quietly living his life, and the general manager search reaching periodic points of inertia, the Red Sox last night were on the verge of acquiring Marlins pitcher Josh Beckett, a momentous move that would position the club with an ace around which to build its pitching staff for perhaps a decade to come.
Pending physicals, the 25-year-old Beckett, MVP of the 2003 World Series, will come to Boston along with 2005 Gold Glove-winning third baseman Mike Lowell and the entire balance of Lowell's cumbersome contract, according to two major league sources. The Sox, the sources said, will send to Florida two of the organization's top prospects, Double A shortstop Hanley Ramírez and Double A righthander Anibal Sánchez, as well as another lesser prospect, Single A pitcher Jesus Delgado. The sources indicated that no money is changing hands in the deal.
Baseball America is expected to rank Ramírez the Sox' third-best prospect (he was No. 1 a year ago), Sánchez fourth, and Delgado 18th.
Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino refused comment last night.
The deal would represent somewhat of a coup for the Red Sox, since the Texas Rangers, by all indications, were in closest pursuit of Beckett over the last few days, reportedly offering up economical and productive third baseman Hank Blalock (under contract for a total of $13.7 million over the next three seasons) and one of the organization's top two pitching prospects, John Danks or Thomas Diamond. But Texas GM Jon Daniels reportedly received a call yesterday afternoon informing him that the Marlins would be going another route.
Beckett, who will turn 26 in May, went 15-8 with a 3.38 ERA in 29 starts in 2005, and in 103 career starts over four-plus seasons, he is 41-34 with a 3.46 ERA, all with Florida, the team that drafted him second overall in 1999.
Beckett rocketed to prominence during the 2003 postseason, when as a 23-year-old he pitched complete-game shutouts in Game 5 of the NLCS vs. the Cubs and in a clinching Game 6 of the World Series vs. the Yankees, the latter appearance on three days' rest. Beckett also pitched four innings in relief in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS, allowing one run just three days after his Game 5 start.
Beckett stands to become the Sox' most significant trade for a young, cornerstone-caliber player since the club acquired Pedro Martínez eight years ago. Beckett does come with some injury issues. He's dealt with recurrent blisters on his right middle finger for several years. A more pressing matter, though, is an unspecified issue with his right shoulder. According to a recent story in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Beckett needed 20 pitches to warm up before every inning over the last six weeks of the season and underwent two MRIs, one with Dr. James Andrews, after the season. Last season, he visited the DL once, in July, with an oblique strain.
Still, he was made available by Florida not so much because his future is uncertain but because the team's is. Florida will not re-sign A.J. Burnett, and the club is looking to deal Carlos Delgado, among others, in an unloading of talent designed to drastically reduce payroll.
But to land Beckett, the Sox will have to take on Lowell, who is guaranteed $9 million each of the next two seasons and hit just .236 with 8 homers and 58 RBIs in 150 games last season after averaging 25 homers and 95 RBIs for five seasons. Other than nine games at second base in 2005, Lowell, an All-Star in 2002, '03, and '04, has played his eight-year career at third base, where he's evolved into one of the game's best gloves at the position.
Lowell, a .272 career hitter who turns 32 in February, made only six errors in 135 games at third this year, the lowest error total ever by an NL third baseman who appeared in 135 games. He also posted the lowest average ever for an NL Gold Glove winner at third base. His addition to the Sox would leave in question where Kevin Youkilis fits in 2006 and all but guarantee that Bill Mueller has played his last game with Boston.
Initial reports yesterday had the Sox dealing either Sanchez or Double A lefty Jon Lester to Florida, though Lester, who led Double A in ERA and strikeouts last season, was never offered up. Instead, Florida was offered, and accepted, Sanchez, whom one high-ranking Sox executive projected this season as a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher when major league-ready, and the Sox didn't expect that to be until approximately 2007.
The 21-year-old Sanchez, a compact strikeout pitcher, has made only 40 professional starts (15 in short-season Lowell, 14 with Single A Wilmington, and 11 with Double A Portland) but has fanned 259 while walking only 66. He has only 11 starts above Single A, and went 3-5 with a 3.45 ERA this year in his Double A baptism, though he did whiff 63 and walk only 16 in 57 1/3 innings with the Sea Dogs.
Ramírez played four full seasons in the Sox system, and last year hit .271 with Portland, with 7 triples, 6 homers, and 52 RBIs in 122 games. Ramírez, who turns 22 next month, was expected to begin next season at Triple A Pawtucket.
Beckett, who made $2.4 million last season, is expected to receive a raise, to the $4 million-$5 million neighborhood, through arbitration, and won't become a free agent until after the 2007 season. It's possible, of course, that the club signs him to a long-term deal.
A 6-foot-5-inch native of Spring, Texas, Beckett broke into the majors in 2001 at age 21, at the time the fourth-youngest player in the league. In six postseason appearances in 2003, all but one as a starter, Beckett went 2-2 with a 2.11 ERA, striking out 47 and walking only 12 in 42 2/3 innings.
In 2005 with the Marlins, he ranked seventh in the NL in hits per nine innings (7.71), eighth in winning percentage (.652), and ninth in batting average against (.234) and strikeouts per nine innings (8.36). In 179 2/3 innings, he allowed 153 hits, struck out 166, and walked 58.
Lowell, meanwhile, posted his most balanced offensive seasons in 2003 and 2004, hitting .276 and .293, respectively, with combined totals of 71 doubles, 59 homers, and 190 RBIs. But he struggled last season. He experienced vision problems, at one point experimenting with one contact lens, in his left eye.
Gordon Edes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.