King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Red Sox pay $51.1 million just to talk to a pitcher. Oh, yeah. The drunken-sailor era is back!

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The Boston Red Sox have spent $51.1 million on a personal seat license to sit at the bargaining table across from Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka — and his agent, Scott Boras, a guy most general managers would pay $51.1 million to never have to see again if they could.

It would appear that the era of financial restraint is over, and we’re in for a return to the good old bad old days of wild salary inflation and double-take contracts. Which are actually fun kinds of days. Not my money, after all. Let baseball’s new drunken-sailor era begin!

Baseball teams are flush with cash and, thanks to labor peace, have no incentive to pretend they’re poor. Some are less poor than others. The Red Sox practically fart hundred-dollar bills, so they can afford to blow away their fellow bidders. They outbid the New York Mets by a reported $12 million or so. The rival Yankees, richer than anybody and in need of pitching, were reportedly more than $20 million off the selling price.

Matsuzaka is a 26-year-old right-hander whom many observers believe will be a No. 1 starter in the U.S. major leagues. Chicago White Sox second baseman Tad Iguchi, who faced Matsuzaka in Japan and has been facing American League pitching for two seasons, says so. He called Matsuzaka’s pitches “dominant.”

One of those pitches, a supposedly devastating type of curve known as a gyroball, may be apocryphal. Seriously. More people talk about it than have seen it.

But Matsuzaka does look like a can’t-miss. Check out his numbers in Japan over the last three seasons:

G     IP     W-L     ERA     WHIP     BB/9     SO/9
78     567.2     38-27     2.68     1.16     3.57     10.23


Oh, wait! Those are Hideki Irabu’s numbers. You remember Hideki Irabu, don’t you, Yankees fans? Here are Matsuzaka’s real numbers over the last three years in Japan, I swear:

G     IP     W-L     ERA     WHIP     BB/9     SO/9
76     547.1     41-24     2.38     1.03     2.04     9.09

Better than Irabu’s, thanks mostly to a dynamite 2006 — 17-5, 2.13 ERA — but not by orders of magnitude or anything. Matsuzaka is a little less than two years younger than Irabu was when he came over, and his conditioning figures to be better. Still, there’s no such thing as a sure thing, and the unsurest of unsure things in baseball is a pitcher.

The $51.1 million is what’s called a posting fee, paid not to Matsuzaka but to his team, the Seibu Lions, for the right to negotiate with him. If the Red Sox can’t strike a deal in 30 days, he stays with the Lions for a year and the Sox keep their money.

If you want to know what kind of off-season we’re just entering the meat of, consider that the previous high posting fee was the $13.1 million the Seattle Mariners paid for Ichiro Suzuki.

And that was during the wild winter of 2000-01, when Alex Rodriguez signed for $25 million a year, Manny Ramirez for $21 million, Derek Jeter for $19 million, Mike Hampton — Mike Hampton! — for $15 million, and Darren Dreifort and Denny Neagle — Darren Dreifort and Denny Neagle! — for more than $10 million each.

Since then, contracts have been topping out in the low-teen millions a year, with only a few, most recently Carlos Beltran’s $17 million-a-year deal with the Mets two years ago, topping $15 million.

Boy, are things changing.

The foreheads of Red Sox fans appear to be unfurrowed over this latest twist in their team’s saga. An online poll by the Boston Globe asking if the Red Sox’s bid was a smart financial move was running almost 4-1 in favor Wednesday morning with more than 6,000 votes counted.

And why not? If nothing else, they keep Matsuzaka away from the Yankees for at least a year.

Matsuzaka would be eligible for free agency during the 2008 season, so the negotiations figure to be an upside-down-world affair, with Boras pushing for a shorter contract so Matsuzaka can try free agency in a couple of years and the Sox trying to lock the pitcher up for more time to better amortize the posting fee.

It’s beyond me why Matsuzaka would sign for anything more than two years, knowing he can go back onto the market while still in his 20s and get a new contract where the first dollar that goes into his bank account is dollar No. 1 rather than dollar No. 51,100,001. But Boras has done pretty well by his clients.

The monster Matsuzaka posting fee may not have been the first sign that we’re in for an off-the-charts off-season of spending. That first indicator may have been much more subtle: The Chicago Cubs giving career utility man Mark DeRosa $13 million over three years to play second base.

That doesn’t sound like a ton of money given the figures being tossed around this off-season — $75 million the Cubs will pay over five years for Aramis Ramirez, more than $100 million that someone will likely pay Alfonso Soriano, $51.1 million just to talk to Boras about Matsuzaka.

But it’s a lot when you consider that DeRosa will be 32 by Opening Day, that he’d never been a regular before last year, and that he’d never put up anything like the solid offensive year he posted for the Texas Rangers in 2006. His career OPS-plus is 90, meaning his OPS has been about 90 percent of league average for his time in the majors. And that’s including his solid 2006.

Guys who have career years at age 31 do not, as a rule, repeat them. As Bill Veeck famously said when baseball payrolls were just starting to skyrocket, it’s not the high price of success that’s a problem, it’s the high price of mediocrity.

By all accounts, Matsuzaka’s as good a bet as you can get on an arm, but if he doesn’t pan out, the Red Sox will have set a new record in paying that price. If he gets a sore arm or his gyroball doesn’t translate, he could end up making Mike Hampton, Darren Dreifort and Denny Neagle look like bargains.

Welcome back, drunken sailors. This should be fun.

Previous column: Michigan vs. Ohio State: Part 1?

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