NAPLES, Fla. -- Just four months after the Boston Red Sox said they couldn't possibly consider picking up the $22 million owed Bobby Abreu at the trading deadline -- "We're not the Yankees," was the short version of their defense -- they apparently have blown the rest of baseball out of the water for the rights to negotiate with Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, a pitcher who might cost them $75 million for three years of service.
It would seem to be a stunning reversal of philosophy until you understand this: There is no more valuable commodity in the game than young ace pitchers, and the Red Sox boldly just redefined the value.
The Red Sox decided what a premier pitcher on the open market is worth -- you might creatively start with the prorated $22 million salary the Astros established last season for Roger Clemens, who is 16 years older than Matsuzaka -- then added in the ancillary income from new sponsorships and merchandising that come from featuring an international star (teams keep what they earn from their own stores and equally share other sales with the other 29 teams), tossed in the worth of a halo effect of extending Red Sox Nation to the Far East, and threw in a few more million to make sure they won the bidding war for Matsuzaka's rights. Maybe the number is not so crazy after all -- assuming, of course, that Matsuzaka stays healthy.
See, premier pitchers, the ones entering their prime, just don't get on the market any more, not since the full-blown revenue sharing kicked in. (Yes, Barry Zito is out there this year, but is he a true ace?) Teams that once routinely waited to pick off aces such as Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux, Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton in another era can't count on those kinds of pitchers going up for sale anymore.
In the past two years alone a virtual entire generation of aces have been locked up with contract extensions, many of whom pitch for small-revenue clubs and would have been up for bid in the past. Check out this list of those who signed extensions recently and won't be available to pitch for another team until 2009 at the earliest:
* Assumes exercised options
Next up in the parade of extensions: 26-year-old Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs. Chicago plans to hammer out a long-term deal with the right-hander this winter to keep him off the free agent market after next season.
Now along comes Matsuzaka, only 26 and the best pitcher on the market in, going back to last year, perhaps a four-year window. You miss this train and there's nothing like it coming along for a long time. It didn't take any genius on Boston's part to figure that out, but it did take unprecedented boldness to step out as far as the Sox did. (And don't think the reported $45 million bid was just a ploy to keep him away from the Yankees; the Red Sox will negotiate with Matsuzaka in good faith or risk insulting the player, the country of Japan and causing irreparable harm to MLB's relationship with the Japanese major leagues.)