Of course Josh Beckett is scheduled to be on the hill on Tuesday night. You expected someone else to serve as the face of the trade deadline for the Red Sox?
In so many ways, Beckett has been a defining presence on the Red Sox for the last 10 months. He is the one who is portrayed publicly as the chief culprit in the “toxic” clubhouse environment, the pitcher who is still most deeply associated by the public with the beer-and-chicken controversy, the one who has dealt with shoulder and thumb injuries this year, the one who went golfing on an off-day after being scratched with some minor lat soreness.
In the eyes of the public, Beckett has become a caricature rather than a pitcher or a person, and so the words about him have been repeated so often that they have become implicit and almost impossible to shake: ‘Entitled,’ ‘arrogant,’ ‘indifferent, ‘self-absorbed,’ ‘uncoachable,’ and on and on the list goes.
And so, just as surely as those words are attached to him, a corresponding notion has captured the public imagination. Nevermind the return: dump the entitled, arrogant, indifferent, self-absorbed, uncoachable pitcher whose failures last September sabotaged the Red Sox’ season and whose poor performance this year (5-9, 4.57 ERA) has dragged the team to a point where a playoff spot, while not an impossibility, is a longshot.
Beckett must go. The right-hander must be traded. That is the tone that seems to surround Beckett, treating him as a sort of successor to Manny Ramirez in 2008, a player who needed to be dealt at all costs.
At the July 31 deadline four years ago, the Sox agreed with their slugger’s assessment that enough was enough. The team picked up the entirely of his remaining salary at the deadline – approximately $6 million – in order to move him to the Dodgers, with Jason Bay coming back to Boston.
And now, there is a similar feeling surrounding Beckett. But such vehement sentiments ignore a significant reality about the pitcher: He’s not Manny Ramirez.
The Sox had reached the point in 2008 where they could no longer live through keeping Ramirez on their roster. He engaged in acts of outright mutiny, inventing injuries, declining to play, going through the motions when on the field. Ramirez was sick of the Red Sox, and his teammates had reached a similar point with him.
Beckett is different. He remains a popular clubhouse presence, one who cares about the performance of his team (witness his ejection on Sunday night while arguing a blown call during a Will Middlebrooks at-bat).
As such, the Sox do not feel any compulsion to move the right-hander. They’d reached a breaking point with Ramirez in 2008. The same cannot be said of Beckett right now.
“I don’t see any parallel [between Ramirez and Beckett],” said Sox GM Ben Cherington on Friday, a sentiment since echoed by several team front office and clubhouse sources. “Josh has taken the ball whenever he possibly can for as long as he’s been here. He’s taken the ball some days when probably he shouldn’t have, frankly, and he was hurt. Any time he’s able to pitch, he wants to pitch, and he’s pitched well over the course of his time here.”
Some team officials and players scoffed at the notion of addition by subtraction when it comes to the right-hander, feeling that those who suggest such an idea simply don’t understand Beckett’s place in the clubhouse.
“Everyone thinks he’s just a hard-ass, Texas, ‘I’m going to do it my way or the highway’ kind of guy. He’s not,” said Jon Lester. He’s a great teammate. He’s taught me a lot about pitching and a lot about being a professional. I’m sure if you talked to Clay [Buchholz], he’d say the same thing.
“He’s taught a lot of us. We’ve followed in his shoes as far as a work ethic and what we’re doing on the field, the way we pitch, the way we go after hitters, the way we prepare for games. He’s helped a lot of people in this organization, especially a lot of young guys. He helped Drake [Britton] this spring training. That’s a tough guy to lose out of your organization just because of the way people perceive him.”
That said, there is unquestionably a willingness on the part of the Sox to explore the possibility of moving the right-hander. The team was not merely listening on offers but engaging teams in creative exchanges of ideas to see if there was a deal to be had.
By all accounts, the most probable scenario is that the right-hander remains with the Red Sox and makes his start against the Tigers on Tuesday night. Depending on which major league source you ask, with less than 24 hours to the deadline for non-waiver trades, a swap that would send the longtime Sox starter elsewhere was less than a “less than 50-50” proposition, “unlikely” or “not happening.” As of Monday night, according to a source, the Red Sox hadn’t gotten close enough to a deal at any point to consider approaching the pitcher about waiving his 10-5 right (10 years of major league service, five with one team) to veto a trade.
That reflects the complex reality facing the Sox with Beckett. Beyond the simplistic bluster about “Beckett must go,” the team faces a far more challenging landscape when it comes to determining what to do with the right-hander and longtime staff anchor. A look at some of the considerations in play with him:
WHY THEY WOULD MOVE HIM
There comes a point where perception is reality. And undoubtedly, the Red Sox at some point will have to confront the question of whether they can continue to have a team with one of its central figures being someone whose public reputation has been so sullied -- in no small part by the pitcher's relentlessly unapologetic public attitude, which often comes off as something between indifference and antipathy to the people who pay to see his team play.
Former GM Theo Epstein characterized a “monster” -- the need for success on- and off-field, to drive ratings, to drive marketing, to drive business and to fuel every level of the Red Sox organization -- that drove the team, at times, to make signings that ran counter to the team’s long-term interest. The decision to sign Beckett to a four-year, $68 million deal might qualify.
If that is the case, then how would the aforementioned monster receive the idea of having a rotation next year that featured both Beckett and Lackey, two of the least popular team figures in recent memory. Even though the negative public sentiment surrounding Beckett runs counter to his clubhouse status, it is something with which the Sox must contend.
“I’ve seen it in the past with other teams where the perception of a guy can get him moved,” said Lester. “I would hope [it doesn’t happen with Beckett]. I’ve known [GM Ben Cherington] a long time. I would think Ben wouldn’t do that. If Ben makes a move, that’s solely based on helping Josh and helping this team. I don’t think it’s a vendetta of, the fans don’t like him, media doesn’t like him, whatever. I think Ben’s pretty level-headed when it comes to things like that.”
Still, the weight of public sentiment makes it more difficult to retain the player not just from a PR standpoint, but also because it makes it more difficult for the player himself to achieve success.
Beckett, in discussing his 10-5 rights on Friday, mentioned his desire to stay in Boston but only if he’s still wanted. Lester acknowledged that if Beckett agreed to waive his 10-5 rights in order to be traded, then it was because there was a better environment in which he could play.
“We all want him here more than anything,” said Lester. “It’s a tough decision, and at the same time, it’s one of those bittersweet things. Because he can make that decision, it’s probably better for him or it’s probably better for the organization.
“As long as the organization has the best interests of guys, that’s the No. 1 goal. If you’re going to be better off somewhere else, then everyone here is going to be happy for him and support him.”
The Sox didn’t enjoy the boxed-in position they faced this offseason, when they had little latitude to maneuver because of their long-term commitments. Yet as things stand, while there will be some money coming off the books this coming offseason (the departed Kevin Youkilis and Daisuke Matsuzaka come foremost to mind), the team still has about $100 million in its payroll accounted for in the form of its long-term deals to players like Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia.
Buchholz, Lester and Pedroia still represent relative bargains given their talent, especially when considering the modest hit that their long-term deals represent when calculated for luxury tax purposes (Lester is a $6 million a year player, Buchholz a $7.5 million player and Pedroia a $6.75 million player). The Sox can’t really afford to trade any of them.
Of the other four, Beckett, interestingly, might be the most tradable. Gonzalez, despite his struggles, is still viewed as a building block, and besides, no team takes on a player who is still owed over $130 million in the middle of a season. Crawford’s potential for Tommy John surgery, coupled with the more than $100 million he’s owed, makes him virtually impossible to deal. As Lackey recovers from Tommy John, he obviously is going nowhere. That leaves Beckett, whose $37 million financial commitment is immense isn’t so enormous that it rules out the possibility of a deal that would offer the Sox some meaningful – if incomplete – payroll relief.
Health and declining stuff
Beckett receives lauds within the Sox organization for pitching through pain without ever mentioning his maladies. But there’s a corollary to that.
The fact that his shoulder reached a point where it did not permit him to pitch when he landed on the DL in June underscores the fact that the condition of that valued joint is no small matter. Nor is the fact that his fastball velocity has dropped by about 2-3 mph in the course of one season.
That’s not to suggest that Beckett can’t be an effective pitcher with diminished stuff. He can. He’s demonstrated that in substantial stretches this year, and in the fact that despite his 5-9 record and 4.57 ERA, his 10 quality starts in 17 outings this year give him the highest percentage of anyone on the team.
Even so, if the Sox harbor concerns that Beckett’s shoulder is only going to get worse, and that his stuff inevitably will face further decline, then it could motivate the team to make a deal as soon as possible, even at pennies on the dollar. If the frenzied compulsion by other teams to bolster their starting rotations at the deadline would leave clubs willing to sign off on an acquisition of the pitcher, long-term health concerns be damned, then the Sox might have reason to strike if the proverbial iron heats up. (And again, no sign of that happening just yet.)
WHY THEY WOULDN’T MOVE HIM
They want to contend
Here’s the issue with trading Beckett: What do you do to replace him?
On the surface, the question seems almost silly given that the team is 6-11 in games he’s started. But everyone on the Red Sox insists that such a mark is not a reflection of how Beckett has pitched (again, it’s important to be mindful of that quality start percentage), but of a number of factors beyond his control, most notably, run support. Certainly, the team is mindful of statistics such as FIP (fielding independent pitching), which suggest that Beckett has been a vastly better pitcher than more conventional statistics indicate. (For what it’s worth, Beckett’s FIP -- a number meant to reflect an ERA-equivalent that separates a pitcher’s performance from defensive luck -- of 3.53 this year is better than the 3.57 mark that he had a year ago.)
“You’ve got to take the win-loss record with a grain of salt,” said Cherington last Friday. “We’ve had a lot of good teams here with rotations made up of guys whose performances look a lot like Josh Beckett’s this year. His performance is not our problem.
“We’re trying to improve our team. We’re trying to improve our pitching. He’s been an effective starting pitcher in the American League East this year. However you want to look at it, that’s what he’s been. We’re not doing anything to help us if we take that off the table. We’re trying to improve things.”
If Beckett is removed from the rotation, are the Sox better? Can they compete?
Lester didn’t know where to begin to answer that question, navigating the need to remain loyal to a teammate with the refusal to give up hope if he’s traded.
“It’s hard to speculate. It’s hard to envision when it’s not real,” he said. “I mean, I think we’ll be fine if he’s not here. We’ve got other guys who can step in and do a good job. Who would have thought Felix (Doubront) would be able to do what he’s done this year? We can do what we need to do. That being said, obviously we want him here to compete.
“He’s obviously very important. He’s still Josh Beckett. It’s an important part of our staff, an important part of our team, an important part of our clubhouse. Any time you lose an important presence like that, if he does go, it’s tough. You have to find somebody else who’s going to fill his role. It’s hard to find pitchers who can do what he’s done in his career.”
Sure, the team could return Franklin Morales to the rotation, but it would be a mistake to shrug off Beckett as a pitcher who is easily replaced, particularly given the uncertainties of track record that confront Morales and Doubront, the struggles of Lester this year or the unique formula for success that Aaron Cook is trying to negotiate.
There is a reason why there has been market curiosity about Beckett as a fallback to other more-heralded options (Zach Greinke, Ryan Dempster, etc.). He has proven over a number of years that he has the stuff and competitiveness to work in baseball’s toughest division.
Within the Sox, that view remains unchanged.
“I would want him on my staff anywhere I was, no matter where I was. No question,” said Sox pitching coach Bob McClure. “To me, he’s one of the best. I’ll put it to you this way. I would take him on my pitching staff any day, any time, any year, no question about it, for a lot of reasons – his makeup, his competitiveness, his leadership, a lot of things. There are just so many things in my opinion as a pitching coach, qualities that he has, that I think are real good.
“To me, he has a lot of value. You name it, he’s got it, in good ways.”
Team sources continue to suggest that their goal at the deadline is a major league upgrade rather than a lateral move or a deal that would set back the team’s chances in 2012. And herein lies another key difference between Beckett and Ramirez: Whereas the Sox were able to land Jason Bay when dumping Ramirez, the same is not true of Beckett. There’s no sign that the team can acquire someone with the credentials of a legitimate mid-rotation starter in the AL East. That makes the idea of a Beckett deal even more challenging.
They want to maximize the return – and the financial relief
The middle of the summer is typically a time when teams that part with players must assume the greatest amount of their remaining contracts. Budgets are less flexible during the season than they are in the offseason.
As more than one major league source noted in recent days, the team is not looking to dump Beckett simply for the sake of doing so. A trade has to be for the betterment of the team, whether in the players received in return or the financial relief afforded by moving him. The team doesn’t feel like it’s under the gun to make a deal right now regardless of the return or offer.
That being the case, the Sox aren’t going to, say, pick up $30 million of his remaining balance with little player return. Doing so would hamstring the club for years to come.
After all, financial transfers to subsidize old contracts count against the team’s payroll as calculated for luxury tax purposes. If the Sox pick up a huge amount of Beckett’s deal and then sign another pitcher in the offseason (for the sake of argument, let’s say the team signs a pitcher like Hiroki Kuroda to the same sort of one-year, $10 million deal he received from the Yankees this past season), it would be a double whammy for luxury tax purposes.
Rather than helping the Sox to get under the luxury tax threshold – an important goal for the team by 2014 – subsidizing a Beckett trade heavily could have the opposite effect of nudging the Sox towards (and perhaps over) the threshold.
If the Sox deal Beckett now, it would most likely reflect a conclusion that mid-year desperation was prompting a trade partner to offer the best available package. But more likely, if the team waits until the offseason, the market would be broader and the budgets for acquiring him would be at their most flexible. So long as the Sox are not concerned that health issues will sabotage the pitcher’s trade value over the duration of the season, the offseason would likely be the time when the team could not only identify the most robust market for his services, but when the team would be best positioned to pursue its own alternatives thanks to the avenue of free agency.
Beckett wields a veto
Beckett, of course, has control over the process as well. Part of the challenge of dealing him is the remaining money on his contract, part of it is the fact that his industry reputation (like his public reputation) has taken a beating and part of it is that, as a 10-5 player, he gets to say whether or not he’d accept a deal. That, too, amplifies the challenge of a deal, particularly in the compressed timeframe of the trade deadline.
None of these factors is insurmountable, of course, which is why a Beckett deal is mostly being characterized as highly unlikely rather than impossible. Who knows? With Roy Oswalt getting lit up on Monday night and the number of available starting pitchers continuing to dwindle, perhaps the Rangers pick up the phone and go all in for a Beckett deal.
But the complexities and potential drawbacks of a deal right now remain considerable, to the point where, in all likelihood, Beckett will find himself in the very familiar setting of the mound at Fenway Park for first pitch on Tuesday night against the Tigers.
Rob Bradford contributed to this report.