Season of intrigue for Beckett

On the Herradura Ranch, Josh Beckett is literally master of his own domain -- 7,000 acres of what is reputed to be some of the finest hunting in south Texas, owned by Beckett Ventures Inc. It is a place for tracking white-tailed deer, quail, turkey, mourning doves, javelinas, bobcats and even the occasional coyote.

Hunting is Beckett's favorite form of relaxation -- he has said that if he didn't pitch for a living, he'd be a hunting guide -- and in good times it can be a lucrative side business. According to the price guide listed on the ranch's Web site, a three-day dove hunt costs $15,000 (24 hunters maximum), and the hunting for whitetail depends on the size and number of points of the antlers: a "Herradura Gold" lists for $9,000 for a three-day hunt, but you have to call ahead to find out the price to hunt the "Buck of a Lifetime."

Soon enough, though, Beckett will put away his favorite firearms to resume his primary means of making a living, throwing a baseball, and the pursuit of even bigger game. Beckett is in the option year of a three-year, $30 million contract extension he signed in July 2006, one that will pay him $12.1 million in 2010.

The deal has worked out well for both sides. Beckett, who struggled in 2006, his first season with the Red Sox, got the security of a long-term deal that left him just 30 years old at its end, leaving plenty of time for him to strike it big in free agency. The Red Sox, meanwhile, got Beckett at a bargain rate for four seasons and avoided having him cash in as a free agent after his spectacular 2007 season.

When he signed the extension in '06, Beckett said he wasn't out to "break the bank."

Since then, the terrain has changed dramatically. Last month, the Red Sox reversed field, abandoned their attempts to re-sign Jason Bay or lure Matt Holliday away from the Cardinals, and signed free-agent pitcher John Lackey, who now trumps Beckett as the highest-paid pitcher on the team. Lackey is to be paid $18 million in 2010.

It is safe to assume that the minimum Beckett will seek in a new deal would be to match the $16.5 million average annual value of Lackey's contract, and for a similar five-year term, which would take him past his 35th birthday. Lackey is 19 months older than Beckett, and their records are quite similar: Lackey is 102-71 with a 3.81 ERA in eight seasons, and Beckett is 103-68 with a 3.79 ERA.

In stats guru Bill James' similarity scores, Lackey and Beckett, when grouped with pitchers through the age of 29, keep company with the likes of Jack Morris, Tim Hudson, Kevin Millwood, Jack McDowell and Dennis Leonard, among others. Of that group, Morris excelled for the longest period of time, going 147-111 with a 4.02 ERA in the last 10 seasons of his career. And in the seasons that took him from age 30 through 33, Morris was 70-43 with a 3.47 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP while averaging 7.4 innings per start. His ERA in that span was about 18 percent lower than that of the average pitcher, according to ESPN researcher Mark Simon.

But with Beckett and Cliff Lee the most attractive potential free agents next winter, it's not unreasonable to expect that Beckett could command even more on the open market, looking toward the $20 million threshold that, at the moment, includes three pitchers: CC Sabathia, Johan Santana and Roy Halladay. Carlos Zambrano of the Cubs is next with a contract that has an average annual value of $18.3 million.

Two questions then loom.

First, could the Red Sox -- who this year will have their highest payroll ever, one projected to top $170 million -- afford Beckett?

The answer: yes. The Red Sox already have $81 million committed to 10 players for 2011, but they could take $55 million off the books by next season, $67 million if we count Beckett's $12.1 million, depending what they do with David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, Jonathan Papelbon, Adrian Beltre, Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek and Hideki Okajima.

The second question: With a rotation that already will have Lackey, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz going forward, and with promising young arms such as Casey Kelly in the pipeline, do the Red Sox want to allocate those kind of resources to another pitcher who will be in his mid-30s by the end of a new contract?

Beckett hit some rough spots in 2009, but overall has shown little sign of slippage, pitching a career-high 212 1/3 innings this past season while striking out a career-high 199 batters. But he showed two potentially worrisome trends, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.62 and a home run-per-9 innings ratio of 1.1, both his worst since 2006. Still, no one questions Beckett's place as an elite starter, although Lester might have supplanted him as the team's No. 1 starter, judging by Lester's having opened the postseason this past October.

The Red Sox say they want Beckett back. Theo Epstein said he texted Beckett immediately after the Lackey signing to tell him that it in no way affected the Red Sox's desire to keep Beckett and that they viewed him as a huge part of their future.

But as Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe learned, there is always a limit to how much the Sox want someone back. Martinez had health issues more serious than Beckett's, and the Sox believed there were off-field issues that made Lowe a risk not worth taking beyond three years. Beckett is healthier than Martinez, more stable than Lowe.

The Red Sox will make an effort to extend Beckett's contract this spring. Negotiations with Beckett's agent, Michael Moye, almost certainly have begun, at least informally, and will intensify in spring training.

But if a deal is not reached at that time, it's conceivable that the Sox will exploit Beckett's value in another way, by offering him as a trading-deadline bonanza for a contender willing to part with premier prospects. That's not easily done, as the Blue Jays proved with Halladay in July. But it is doable, as the Indians showed with Lee and the Phillies.

And those prospects could potentially be used -- as Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus was the first to suggest -- in a package to satisfy the Padres' demands for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, the type of slugger that, with Ortiz nearing the end of his celebrated run, is an even more pressing need for the Red Sox than another ace.

For now, that's highly speculative and could well prove to be fantasy. Beckett and the Sox could strike a deal quickly, But if they don't, and Boston risks the possibility of Beckett's walking as a free agent, it is the type of organization known for being creative to get what it wants. And for the Sox, Gonzalez is the equivalent of a 14-point buck. Deer hunter Josh Beckett can appreciate that.

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.