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Getting dicey with Matsuzaka

Sox not as optimistic about chances to sign Japanese pitcher

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- With a week to go before the clock strikes midnight on the Red Sox' quest to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka, perhaps it should not surprise anyone that the Sox are feeling their chances of landing Dice-K are more than a bit dicey.

While general manager Theo Epstein maintains his posture of no public discourse on the state of negotiations, there is increasing anxiety on Yawkey Way that Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras, is posing an unreasonable, and immovable, obstacle to their bid to add Matsuzaka to their pitching staff.

According to sources with direct access to the Sox' view, there is an increasing feeling that Boras is setting the stage, both privately and publicly, that there is not going to be a deal. "Unless he's being less than honest," one source said, "there isn't going to be a deal."

To date, there has been no movement to bridge the difference in how both sides value Matsuzaka, the 26-year-old Japanese pitcher who has been drawing raves in an informal survey of baseball people gathered here at the winter meetings. For Boras, it's cut and dried: Matsuzaka is one of the best pitchers in the game and should be paid accordingly. Estimates of what Boras is seeking have generally fallen in the range of $12 million a year for six years, while in talks with the Sox he has been known to cite the name of Astros ace Roy Oswalt, who recently signed a five-year, $73 million deal, with a $16 million option for 2012.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, maintain the position that they were willing to post $51.1 million to Matsuzaka's Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, to retain financial control over Matsuzaka for the next six years. He is not a free agent, they remind Boras, one who has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues. For that reason, his situation should not be considered much differently than a Johan Santana, but a Santana with less big league service time: an outstanding pitcher, to be sure, but not one free to peddle his services to the highest bidder on the open market.

Santana, the two-time Cy Young Award winner with the Minnesota Twins, was a season away from free agency last February when he signed a four-year deal for $39.75 million. Should the Sox have to pay Matsuzaka even that much, on top of their initial $51.1 million investment? But that would fall far short of what Boras expects for his client.

It could hardly help the Sox' position that the market continues to soar for pitchers. Yesterday, the Dodgers were close to coming to terms with righthander Jason Schmidt on a three-year, $47 million deal, and reports persist that the Rangers are prepared to offer a six-year, $102 million deal to Barry Zito, another Boras client. If Zito is worth $17 million a year, one can only imagine what Boras has pegged the price for Matsuzaka.

The Sox' fear? That Boras persuades Matsuzaka it's in his best interests in the long term to return to Japan for two more years, become an unrestricted free agent, then command perhaps an unprecedented payday without having to share a cent with Seibu.

Those concerns were heightened by comments such as this Boras made here Tuesday night: "Matsuzaka has a dream to pitch in the major leagues and he is going to fulfill that dream," Boras said. "The time frame of it, I can't exactly predict."

In the past, Boras has maintained that other posted players should have held out for bigger contracts. Boras has challenged the amateur draft system here, so it's not a stretch to see him challenging the posting system, too.

"If there is another posting next year, do you think it will be lower?" the source said. "No. I think several teams will top $50 million next year. The Red Sox would probably up the ante."

The flip side of the Sox' fears is this: Matsuzaka is determined to pitch in the major leagues. The prospect of returning to Japan, where he has little left to prove, is an untenable one. Matsuzaka, mindful that home run king Hideki Matsui signed a comparatively modest three-year, $21 million deal just two years ago as an unrestricted free agent, must also deal with the real possibility of being portrayed as unreasonably greedy in his Japan, which remains dazed at the size of the Sox' posting bid and might be dumbfounded if Matsuzaka spurns millions more than he could earn with Seibu.

And Seibu, of course, would much prefer a huge windfall from the Sox than having to return it if Matsuzaka comes back.

One major league power broker with firsthand knowledge of the negotiations said he does not share the Sox' pessimism that a deal might not be struck. "In the end, they'll get it done," he predicted. "There are too many reasons for this deal not to get done."

It's a high-stakes poker game, of course. Both the Sox and Boras have incentive to make the other side believe they're willing to walk away from the deal. Both sides have shown a willingness in the past to do just that. Midnight remains a week away, but it's approaching high noon.

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