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Sox said to have high bid

Foulke turns down option for free agency

NAPLES, Fla. -- Daisuke Matsuzaka has been lavishly portrayed as the next Tom Seaver, Curt Schilling, or David Cone -- or a combination of all of them.

It's too early to tell whether he's that good, but he is the best talent of any free agent pitcher this offseason. At least that's the consensus among scouts and executives, a guy with Josh Beckett-type stuff.

And he could be wearing the same uniform as Beckett next season. Buster Olney reported on ESPN.com yesterday that the Red Sox may have made the highest bid to the Seibu Lions for the right to negotiate with the 26-year-old righthander.

On a day when Keith Foulke declined the $3.75 million option from the Red Sox to become a free agent, the Matsuzaka story moved front and center.

Major League Baseball spokesman Patrick Courtney only said that the bids have been received and that the high bid is being digested by the Seibu Lions, who have until Tuesday to accept it. The Lions only know the amount, not the identity of the bidder. If the bid is accepted, only then will the bidder's identity be revealed. The sides would then have 30 days to agree upon a deal.

Information has been close to scarce on this subject with MLB frowning upon any official who comments in what is considered a sensitive area of the relationship between MLB and the Japanese league. It's been widely acknowledged that the Yankees, Mets, Cubs, Rangers, and Red Sox are the bidders. Rangers owner Tom Hicks has acknowledged the team's interest.

Olney said sources were plugging Boston's bid into the $37 million-$45 million range. A report yesterday on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram website had the Rangers possibly making the highest bid.

The team that wins the rights to Matsuzaka would have to deal with agent Scott Boras. In this case, Boras doesn't have his usual leverage because if the sides can't come to an agreement Matsuzaka returns to the Lions. If he returns to the Lions, the Sox would be off the hook for the exorbitant posting fee.

If the Sox land Matsuzaka it would give them a potent and formidable threesome of 26-year-olds Beckett, Matsuzaka, and Jonathan Papelbon. It would also act as a preemptive strike against the Yankees, who yesterday traded disgruntled slugger Gary Sheffield to the Detroit Tigers for three young righthanders -- Humberto Sanchez, Anthony Claggett, and Kevin Whelan.

Although there's excitement about Matsuzaka's skills, there are still a few red flags that deterred some teams, including Seattle, from getting into the bidding. In fact, former Mets and Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, who managed the Chiba Lotte Marines, compared Matsuzaka with Mike Mussina and Greg Maddux but "with more pitches."

Valentine also said that when Matsuzaka misses his zone he tends to "create a loud sound," which means the hitter is able to hit the ball a long way.

Valentine knows Japanese baseball is more traditional in that there isn't a huge belief in strict pitch counts. As a result, Matsuzaka has been ridden hard. He has completed at least 10 games for three straight years, and in one 11-inning game, he threw 150 pitches.

"That's to his credit and to a lot of people's concern," Valentine said.

Matsuzaka, a career 108-60 with a 2.95 ERA , certainly makes hitters miss, whether it's with his forkball or with the infamous gyroball, which breaks down and away to righthanded batters. His fastball rides up and in and overpowers hitters.

The concern would be that Matsuzaka, who has thrown more than 1,400 innings, is an elbow or shoulder problem waiting to happen.

On the other hand, he'll not have anywhere near that workload in the United States.

One agent familiar with signing Japanese players said, "With the kind of money involved here, I'm sure any team which obtains him is insured in full, if something should happen. Pitching is always a risk."

As for Foulke, agent Dan Horwits said the 34-year-old reliever spent the last two days trying to make his decision, but in the end, "Keith decided he wanted to pitch closer to home [in Arizona]."

There is a possibility Foulke might get his wish. Former Sox assistant GM Josh Byrnes, who had so much to do with bringing Foulke to Boston prior to the 2004 season, might entertain another go-around now that he's the Diamondbacks' GM.

"I think we would have to look into it," Byrnes said. "We're always looking for good players at good value."

Horwits said Foulke had no hard feelings about Boston and his decision was completely one of convenience for his family.

"We respect Keith's decision to become a free agent," said Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "Keith said he wanted to play in a city closer to his family, and that's certainly understandable. We wish him the best."

Foulke, who was 3-1 with a 4.35 ERA in 44 games in 2006, is guaranteed the $1.5 million buyout, but will he be able to get a deal that comes close to the $3.75 million option he turned down?

"Obviously the process is now beginning so we don't know, but hopefully we can," Horwits said. "One thing is for certain, you hear players sometimes say it's not about the money. In this case, it wasn't about the money. Keith has made a lot of money. He wanted to do what was best for his family."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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