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Dan Shaughnessy

Trying to read signs on Beckett

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 22, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Anybody feel good about the odds of Josh Beckett returning to the Red Sox after this season?

Like a little boy getting a flu shot, Beckett did his bit with the Mass(achusetts) media yesterday. He came in from his workout and sat before nine television cameras and dozens of microphones, and took questions from curious minds. He made it pretty clear that he won’t be crying about his contract all year.

“That stuff is going to work itself out and I’m really not too concerned with it and I don’t really have anything to say about contract stuff,’’ he started. “I really don’t have anything to say right now. I don’t think I’ll have anything to say at all during spring training. I don’t want that to be the focus on what I’m trying to do.’’

Don’t expect a lot more from Beckett on this. He’s in the final year of a three-year ($30 million) extension, signed early in his first season with the Sox (2006) and his agent no doubt has reminded him there’s no upside to talking contract with the media. So he’ll do his work and pitch and we’re not going to know what’s happening until there’s a sudden announcement of another extension . . . or, more likely, the season ends and Beckett tests the market.

Beckett turns 30 in May. He’s healthy. He’s an ace. He’s won two World Series, almost all by himself. In 2007 he went 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA in four postseason starts and the Sox cruised to a second straight Series sweep. He’s seen the ridiculous dough paid to CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett after the 2008 season. He saw the Red Sox spend more than $100 million to bring Daisuke Matsuzaka to America. He saw the Sox sign John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5 million pact last winter. He knows there is only so much money one team can commit to starting pitching.

General manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona are standing on their heads to remind everyone how much they love Beckett. While fans and media are quick to anoint Jon Lester the new ace of the Sox staff (Lester got the ball for Game 1 against the Angels in last season’s ALDS), and Lackey was the ace of the Angels, Francona keeps talking about Beckett as the “leader’’ of Boston’s staff.

“Leader’’ won’t cut it when it’s contract time. Beckett is going to have to be highest-paid, or he is gone.

It would be nice to think of a Sox team with Beckett, Lester, and Lackey at the top of the rotation for several years, but I’m not seeing it.

Beckett says his people and the Sox have “talked about talking,’’ but this has a Patriots-like stamp of “value’’ all over it. For whatever reason, John Henry is increasingly careful about spending money on the Sox’ future (ask Mark Teixeira and Jason Bay) and the team is likely to go conservative, citing Beckett’s age and injury history.

Epstein made a point to contact Beckett after acquiring Lackey.

“I don’t think he would have contacted me if he didn’t have good intentions there,’’ said Beckett. “If not, he probably just would have left it alone.’’

It’s always been tough to read Theo’s take on Beckett because there’s no pride of authorship. Beckett was acquired, along with Mike Lowell, in exchange for triple crown threat Hanley Ramirez in November 2005. The deal was consummated after Theo quit the team and we’ll never know if it would have been done had Epstein still been in charge.

Beckett’s Sox career has been good but not great. He went 16-11 in his first season, but his ERA ballooned over 5.00 and he surrendered 36 homers. He followed that with seasons of 20-7, 12-10, and 17-6. Last year he threw 212 1/3 innings, tops in his Sox career, fanning 199.

Asked to assess his time in Boston, Beckett said, “I don’t think anybody would ever blame me for [not] competing. Even on those five crappy starts that I have each year. I’m out there competing even though sometimes things don’t go the way you want. But it’s a blast. Playing in Boston is fun. You’ve got 50,000 people plus another 2 million watching you every night whether you’re pitching or not. That’s fun. There’s not too many places like that. As far as the professional deal, there’s been ups and downs. I think I’ve weathered some storms better than others.’’

He says he won’t be distracted by the contract uncertainty.

“Absolutely,’’ he said. “I’m not going to worry about it. Once it’s done, it’s done.’’

And if it’s not done soon, he’s probably done with Boston.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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