FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In Boston now, we speak of October as if it is a birthright. The idea this year, for example, is to get John Smoltz ready for October, as if it were a forgone conclusion that the Red Sox will be playing meaningful games during the 10th month that serves as the 11th hour in every baseball season.
This brings us to Josh Beckett, the ace of the Red Sox staff and a man generally who has thrived in October, at least until last year, when an injury stripped him of most all weaponry. As such, for Beckett, this year is not solely about October anymore. It is about reclaiming the form he demonstrated in 2007, when he was baseball’s only 20-game winner, when he was the concrete piling on which the entire Red Sox pitching staff was built.
Beckett may not want to hear this but he has something to prove this year, even if he continues to hold himself to a higher standard than anyone else.
"I do think that, last year, Josh paid the price for pitching deep into the season the year before,’’ Sox manager Terry Francona said today at the Red Sox’ minor league complex, where the pitchers and catchers had their second day of organized workouts. "He came into camp and he was just a click behind where he was [in 2007]."
By October, as it turned out, Beckett was several clicks behind, most notably on the radar gun, where his fastball had lost considerable velocity thanks to a strained right oblique he suffered during the final days of the regular season. Overnight, one of baseball's most accomplished postseason pitchers turned into a virtual punching bag, posting an 8.79 ERA in three playoff starts covering 14 1/3 innings. Along the way, it was difficult to choose the more improbable happening: that Beckett continued to take the mound or that the Red Sox nearly reached the World Series anyway.
In retrospect, if the former speaks to Beckett’s competitiveness, the latter speaks to the depth and character of the Boston clubhouse last fall, particularly in the absence of Mike Lowell (hip) and with David Ortiz (wrist) functioning at something less than full capacity. This spring, with only a few tweaks, the Boston roster returns intact. The nucleus of the Red Sox’ rotation, bullpen and lineup generally remain the same, which suggests that the Red Sox are fully capable of doing everything they did a year ago.
As for Beckett, all of a sudden, we can’t be so sure. Beckett now has been a member of the Red Sox for three seasons -- one good, one bad, one somewhere in between. Beckett’s talent is indisputable and his work ethic, makeup and ability to perform under pressure are absolute. But what most makes great players great is the ability to consistently perform at a high level, from April through October, with only brief stops at rest areas.
Last October, the problem was obvious -- "You just don’t have explosiveness," Beckett said of the effect of his injury -- but this isn’t solely about last October now.
As things stand, Beckett has one year and $10 million remaining on a three-year, $30 million contract extension he signed with the Sox during the 2006 season, though the club does hold a $12 million option for 2010. Beckett today declined to address anything as it pertained to his future with the team -- "That’s not my [style]," he said -- though we must now begin wondering to what lengths, if any, the Red Sox will go to keep him in a Boston uniform.
Remember: the trade for Beckett was executed during general manager Theo Epstein’s hiatus in the fall of 2005, though Epstein did sign Beckett to the $30 million extension less than a year later. This May 15, Beckett will turn 29. That means he will be 30 (or approaching it) the next time he ventures into free agency -- most likely in 2010 -- and we all know how the Red Sox feel about investing big dollars in free-agent pitchers, particularly ones in their 30s.
Between now and then, the question is whether Beckett makes the decision easy or difficult, the latter of which seems more likely. But really, how do we know at this stage? When you get right down to it, Beckett (48-28, 4.11 ERA, 524 strikeouts in 579-2/3 innings) and A.J. Burnett (38-26, 3.94 ERA, 525 strikeouts in 522-2/3 innings) have reasonably comparable totals during their three years in the American League, which raises the obvious question:
Today, if you had it to do over again, would you rather have had Burnett and Hanley Ramirez for the last three years, or Beckett and Mike Lowell?
Given the Red Sox’ success over the last two seasons, in particular, most of us still would opt for the latter tandem, but that is hardly the point. The discussion simply is not as one-sided as it was a year ago at this time. And despite Lowell’s physical difficulties at the end of last season, the biggest reason for that is still Beckett, who is the type of talent that can almost single-handedly alter a season, particularly in, you know, October.
Last year, despite Beckett’s parade of nagging ailments and physical problems, the Red Sox reached Game 7 of the ALCS before losing to the Tampa Bay Rays. Since that time, in retrospect, we seem to have learned two things. One is that the Red Sox could reach Game 7 of the ALCS without a dominating Josh Beckett thanks largely to the development of Jon Lester. The other is that the AL East is now a considerably more challenging division with the emergence of the Rays and the reconstruction of the New York Yankees, the latter of whom invested nearly a half-billion dollars in their very own stimulus package.
This year and beyond, then, we’re likely to find out something else, too.
We’re likely to find out just how much the Red Sox really need Josh Beckett.
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